Monthly Archives: December 2015

Why I broke up with RadioLab

I posted last week about the podcasts I love. Many people responded that they loved RL. I used to be in that camp. I haven’t talked that much about why I broke up with them, but I did mention it. One of my friends asked me why, so here is my response.

Part I:

In the fall of 2012 I was walking to meet a friend for lunch and listening to the episode “The Fact of the Matter.” Then the segment Yellow Rain came on. I remember hearing Robert Krulwich interrogate Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, and I was on the verge of tears at his questioning.

Shortly after the episode aired, Ms. Yang wrote a response, specifically about how she and her uncle had agreed to participate because they believed they would finally get to tell their story and be believed. Instead, they were badgered and not taken seriously, diminished. I urge you to listen to the episode and then read Ms. Yang’s response. She had a further follow-up.

Part II:

In March 2012, This American Life produced an entire episode retracting the Mike Daisy Foxconn story. At the time I thought it was overkill. Why was Ira bending over backwards? I didn’t understand.

Part III:

sunset behind the mekong

I’d spent the winter of 2011 in SE Asia. I visited Laos. I learned not only about the Hmong people, but how Laos got the worst of it during the Vietnam War era. Everyone was carpet bombing the fuck out of them. They have more unexploded ordinances than any other country in SE Asia and it would take centuries to clear all the bombs if anyone was doing any actual clearing. This was not something I’d learned in high school or college history classes.

Part IV:

So after having traveled to Laos and hearing TAL’s retraction, I expected a similar level of respect from Radioplab. Instead, their response disheartened me. They weren’t interested in facts, or the truth, as they said. They had destroyed my trust. Why couldn’t they believe the Yangs? I wrote an email to the show, telling them they had broken my trust. They never responded to my email. They dug in, got defensive, and didn’t see how they’d harmed the Yangs.

Epilogue:

I had learned some fantastic things from Radkoplab, but I’m still heartbroken about the treatment of the Yangs. On a piece about facts and truth, they couldn’t see their own errors or admit they had fucked up and done harm. I’ve tried to listen a few times since the fall of 2012, and each time I just get really sad and also don’t know what to believe from their story. I can learn about the things they cover in other places.

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Podcasts I Love

In no particular order:

STORYTELLING

Risk Show

Hosted by Kevin Allison, the tag line is “true stories you thought you’d never dare to share.” While there are plenty of stories about sexual adventures, there are other stories that venture into darker/forbidden territory as well. Trevor Noah’s story about his mother is a recent one I recommend. I was also incredibly moved by Marcy Langlois’ story surrender, about recovering from tragedy.

The Moth

This is the first storytelling podcast I heard. So many fantastic voices and stories. I often replay them later for my girlfriend. Top hits include:

Strangers

Produced by Lea Thau, who was the first producer on The Moth. She interviews different people on the theme of what makes them feel a stranger. I always find these stories touching, even when the people’s experiences are so different from my own. For a start, try American Mormon-International Mr. Leather. Or start anywhere, really.

nigella pod

INTERVIEWS:

Nerdist. Chris Hardwick interviews people from the entertainment industry with a nerdy and/or comedy slant. Recent interviews I enjoyed: Cameron Esposito, Lily Tomlin, and Jon Ronson.

My mom just tipped me off to Crybabies, which is about the things that make people cry. Susan Orlean and Sarah Thyre are fabulous. I’ve only listened to a few, but Guy Branum’s ep was great. Notorious RBG. I say no more.

On Being is hosted by Krista Tippet. I don’t listen regularly, but she gets the most amazing people, like Mary Oliver. I did listen to her recent episode with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, who have been such a formative part of my own adulthood.

HISTORY:

State of the Re:union is no longer producing new episodes, but it is excellent. Al Letson explores different places across the country through a specific lens – often race, but not always. Pick a place you know, or one you don’t, and learn more amazing things about this country.

And a few more as I run out of steam for you.

DESIGN:

Design Matters with Debbie Millman
99 Percent Invisible with Roman Mars. Go listen to the episode about lawns. Also, Roman has the best voice to put in your ears.

SCIENCE:

Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC
Sawbones: a marital tour of misguided medical history

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The &^*#@ Spring Rolls

As many of you know, I spent the winter of 2011 traveling around SE Asia. I started in Thailand, where I spent 6 weeks. My mom met up with me at the end of that time in Chiang Rai, which is in the far north of Thailand and is part of the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet.

I had learned from a friend that I could take the slow boat down the Mekong, starting in Thailand and ending in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and city in Laos. My mom was up for the adventure, so once she landed in Thailand there was no time to get settled. We just picked up the next day and headed out for the boat.

My mother is an intrepid traveler. She doesn’t need all the creature comforts, and neither do I. My basic requirements are a room in a building, and indoor plumbing. I definitely had some adventures with discomfort while I was traveling through Thailand, mostly involving mosquitoes and other insects in my rooms. But my mom didn’t care about insects. She was worried about rats. She’d read stories about the town where we would be staying – Pak Beng – being infested with rats. She didn’t want to take any chances, so I made sure to book a room in advance that had high ratings and most importantly, NO RATS.

The only rat we saw in Pak Beng ended up being a stuffed toy belonging to a child in the hotel where we stayed.

Toy rat

But on to the meat of this particular story. In non-English speaking countries where they depend heavily on tourist dollars, I’ve encountered quite a range of facility with English, particularly in the service sectors. Most people stick to the few scripts that lubricate their business. Their English is far better than my ability to speak their languages, and for that I’m always always always grateful.

I give you this background so you will understand what happened next. Our boat pulled into Pak Beng late in the afternoon. Pak Beng exists for the sole reason of providing lodging and respite to the people riding the boats down the river. We checked in to our hotel, keeping an eye out for rats, and then went to find a place for dinner. Each spot looked the same, so I have no idea how we picked the place we did. It was filled with people, as they all were. We got a table and a young and exuberant fellow took our order. We were famished. There hadn’t been much to eat on the boat, so we were looking forward to a full dinner. After we placed our order we waited. And waited. AND WAITED …

I didn’t blame the waiter, there were large tables that were rowdy and needed more attention. But I finally got desperate and got the waiter’s attention to ask about our order. He was bopping around the restaurant amongst the tables and he glanced at me, his memory jogged. “Oh yes! Your fucking spring rolls!” he exclaimed, full of delight. My mom and I, despite our hunger, broke into laughter at the incongruity of his language with the situation and emotion.

To this day his response makes me laugh.

Here’s my mother the next morning, clutching her bag of bananas, before we boarded for the second day:

Pak Beng

The wooden benches on day 2:

wooden benches

You can see a few more pictures here.

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Over a cuppa

#OverACupOfTeaToday …

I would tell you that my heart is heavy and light, full of emotion, swinging wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other.

cuppa Assam

It’s World AIDS Day, and I think about all the people we’ve lost, before their time, due to fear. I still remember Mark, a beautiful, warm-hearted man who welcomed me when I first moved to Seattle. He was sweet and kind, and we had a special connection. My heart aches for the people around the world whose families have been destroyed, and who are denied treatment due to lack of access or funds. I hold the Bush administration complicit in the deaths of many people in Africa, due to their withdrawal of funding for comprehensive sex ed, in favor of abstinence-only sex ed.

It’s also the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. I can’t remember when I learned that she was an activist, trained for action, not a tired woman acting alone, but it blew my mind and made me so angry when I did. I know it was long after I finished all formal schooling. How much more powerful a story, and one that mainstream educators didn’t want us to know: collective action can and does push the needle. See also: ACT UP.

I saw a young black girl sitting at the front of the bus this morning, while I sat toward the back. I was struck by the ordinariness of it. There was no friction or conflict about where either of us sat. We sat where we chose. I was pleased by it, aware at the same time that there is still so much work to be done to reach true racial equality, as the Black Lives Matter work has made abundantly clear.

The past returns, in Yeats’ ever widening gyre, but I don’t believe it trends toward anarchy, as he predicts. History repeats, and the echoes reverberate. Some lessons it seems we need to learn over and over, with a node to Santayana.

I despair over humanity ever finding a sustainable peace, as the fresh wave of refugees, driven from their homelands, seek safer ground and find themselves rebuffed for the same reasons the German Jews were in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s Bosnia, it’s Sarajevo, it’s Rwanda, it’s Syria. It’s Armenia, it’s Tibet, it’s fucking “ethnic cleansing” which let’s be honest is state-sanctioned murder. If these are the examples I can list off the top of my head, I’m sure there are an equal number of atrocities I’m missing. And most of them haven’t been made into movies, sanitized for Hollywood audiences.

I try to take the long view, to see that progress is happening, even if it’s not on the timeline I’d prefer. In HALF my lifetime, gay people in America went from being persona non grata to having access to marriage. There’s still a long way to go in terms of protections, particularly for trans women of color, but given that 20 years ago there were NONE, this gives me hope. Hope for American culture to shift on things like gun ownership, access to health care, housing, gainful employment, and a standing down of the military. Hope for acceptance of all people. No, not just acceptance or tolerance, but celebration of the variety and diversity of what it means to be human, across sexuality, gender, religion, race, ethnicity, ability, age, and any other variable you can name. It may be naive, but the alternative is too painful to bear.

In my slowbloom way, I choose to return my focus to what I want. It’s easy to get distracted by all the things. It’s hard to admit what I want.

This is what I would tell you over a cup of tea today.

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