Archive for the ‘Podcasts’ Category

Four Excellent New Things

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Two highly recommended reads, a stripped-raw and gobsmackingly brave confessional, and the funniest podcast I’ve ever heard:

1. We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler. The co-founder of Bitch magazine (for which [full disclosure] I penned a few features, back in the day) writes beautifully, passionately, and wittily about the depressing co-optation of feminism by popular culture. Her point is that the transmutation of feminism into a “go-girl” individualist cheer, entirely decoupled from political action, leaves behind the actual societal shifts we desperately need to enact. It also puts the onus of empowerment on individual women, ignoring the structures that have been in place for centuries which prevent/limit/undermine women’s achievement.

At the same time, pop culture’s version of feminism (“feminism”) leeches the power from what is supposed to be a political and social movement by rendering it “judgmental” to call out specific actions as unfeminist. In other words, as long as any woman chooses to do something, we’re told that implying that she might be choosing against the common good is wrong and even anti-feminist. SIGH. At any rate, Once is a fantastic book and a reminder that the work of feminism is very much unfinished. It’s also fiercely entertaining, for whatever that’s worth.

2. I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro. I read a lot of memoirs by comedians, in addition to a lot of comedic memoirs, and I feel conflicted about them. I find the genre compelling and funny, which is its point. I also love getting to know more about people whose work I admire. But it’s almost inevitable that writers joke lightly about what I take to be serious things, laughing over their pain. It can feel like they’re selling out their wounds for a laugh, which . . . I know, I know. That formulation applies basically to all of comedy, right? That’s kind of what stand-up is? And yet there’s something about the book version of it that amplifies my discomfort and sorrow. I wish everyone had the permission to let the bad shit be as bad as the bad shit actually is.

Cue Tig Notaro’s recent memoir. It’s certainly funny, at times, and it’s always compelling. But mostly it’s real and heartfelt and well told and emotionally present. She’s not trying to make her suffering smaller. It’s the opposite, in fact: She’s diving deep into the details of her now infamous Four Months of Extreme Agony, in which she nearly died from a bacterial infection, her romantic relationship broke up, her mother died in a freak accident, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, and she had a double mastectomy. It’s all right there in the title: Hey, I’m a person with all of the terror and confusion and conflicts and non-knowing that everyone else has, and/but I’m happy to share that with you in my very specific and charming and humble voice. Beautifully done.

3. Elna Baker’s recent segment on This American Life. To say too much about this piece would be to risk ruining its many heart-plundering surprises, so I mostly want to recommend a listen. It’s not long, but it is dense, packed with moments of epiphany and wonder that you’ll need to press Pause on. I had already listened once when I shared it with John, and by the end, his entire face had cracked open and his eyes were wet with tears. I almost can’t believe the degree to which Elna Baker is willing to be publicly vulnerable, particularly because she is in the middle of what she’s relating; she’s taking us through a new, raw, and frightening crisis that’s currently playing out for her and for her marriage. I bow in deference and in gratitude.

4. My Dad Wrote a Porno. A podcast in which a thirty-year old British guy reads his father’s self-published pornography, line by line, and he and his two charming friends deconstruct it. This is the stuff of gut-clenching hilarity, and you don’t even have to feel bad about it, since the father (whose pen name is Rocky Flintstone, natch) is delighted. Just a few quick deets to help convey the beauty of this project:

  • The book is called Belinda Blinked.
  • The heroine’s full name is Belinda Blumenthal.
  • Belinda is a sales manager for Steeles Pots and Pans. Not Steeles Kitchen Supply. Not Steeles Restaurant Wares. Steeles Pots and Pans.
  • Rocky tends to use overly medical terminology to describe female genitalia—and/but he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the landscape. At one point, for example, Belinda’s partner “grabs her cervix.”
  • There is a sex-slave situation in which the safe word is “thimble.”

Start at the beginning, because the jokes build. And don’t listen while riding your bike! There have been accidents!

Talk to Me in My Ear Right Now Just Us

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Is it possible that I’ve not yet publicly discussed my love of podcasts?

I love podcasts. At least, I love the podcasts I love, which include almost the entire arts/culture NPR suite (a few caveats, but basically), especially Pop Culture Happy Hour; WTF (but of course); The Longest Shortest Time; Death, Sex & Money (Anna Sale, YOU ARE THE DOUGHNUT); The MothStartUp; and some new ones I’m just ramping up on, like Yo, Is this Racist? (Brilliant concept, that, and finely executed, too.)

(Yeah, I did Serial. I did Serial so hard that I was lined up and waiting for it pre-release.)

I love podcasts so much that I am joining Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Glen Weldon in worrying that my listening time has cut into my novel-reading time, which doesn’t feel one bit of good. And which I would like to change, et rapidement. So, Self. Maybe pay attention to what you just wrote there.

ANYway, at the moment I want to say only one quick thing (okay, maybe a few things) about one podcast (okay, maybe a few podcasts), starting with Invisibilia, the new one from NPR. And that’s this: It is so very close to being what I love. And yet, those echoes of RadioLab! Those purposefully stuttering intros and reassurances that we’re smart enough to comprehend their complicated science and those mugging co-hosts (whom I really like anyway) (but wish they would stop mugging)!

I know I’ve documented my deep frustration with RadioLab, the short version of which is CONDESCENSION, so when I heard that Invisibilia was essentially a cross-polination between RL and This American Life, I wished mightily for the heavier hand of influence to fall from TAL. It . . . doesn’t.

But there’s an addendum to that, too. Which is: Is it me, or has TAL gotten progressively more smug (and pandering) (and condescending) over the years? I was a fan waaaay back in the beginning of the game, in the middish 90′s. And true, I was awfully young then (barely a kitten) (with the itty-bittiest of claws) (and less discernment), but my sense is that for many years, TAL didn’t use cloying tactics and was instead basically story-forward.

These days! I mean, in the latest episode, which features a fantastically intelligent BBC piece about William Burroughs (about whom I care, basically, not at all—but it doesn’t matter! because the piece is stunning!), Ira finds it necessary to say something like, “We’re going to start the audio right now, okay? Right now.”


One more thing: I think these shows, not unlike a certain TED juggernaut, have a tendency to vastly oversimplify the science and draw Big Life Conclusions that aren’t properly substantiated. Even Serial, which was admirably careful about substantiating any claims it made, did something that pained me in its inaccuracy, which was to ask people if they were sure about things that they remembered.

I guess it’s not common knowledge, but what I understand to be scientifically true, based on the very cool work of this guy, is that certainty has absolutely no relationship to the truth; in fact, in some cases, being certain can have an inverse relationship with the truth such that the more certain you are, the less likely it is to be true. So asking someone how sure they feel about whether something happened is literally pointless. (Try it with your husband! See for yourself!)

And and and, I think it is common knowledge, at least among people who study the criminal justice system, that memory is highly unreliable in any case, that we remake our memories every time we recall them, and so nobody’s memory should be relied upon to convict: There should be actual evidence. I get that there’s a need to try to establish a narrative, and you can do that fairly reliably when multiple people’s stories line up, but even then, there are so many ways those people’s memories can be polluted, including the way the question is asked, what they may have already heard about the case, etc.

Serial does a good job of discussing the problems with memory, but it still makes the mistake of, for example, saying that it’s “unlikely” that Asia McClain is remembering the right day if her memory of talking to Adnan is tied to her memory of snow (given that it wasn’t snowing on January 13th, the day that Hae Min Lee went missing). Well, no. Because as the Serial post says earlier, her memory could be conflating that day with another day—and/or, I’ll add, it could be conflating what she and Adnan talked about with what she talked about with someone else, on some other day. It happens all the time. It’s how memory works*.

And . . . this was supposed to be a short post. I guess I’ll save my opinions about Big Hero 6 (funny! charming! sob-inducing!) and Chef (simultaneously well-meaning and depressingly, obliviously sexist—plus! a primer on social media marketing!) for another time. Or, for just now, via parentheticals.

*Conveniently, The New York Times just printed a piece that bears, I believe, some relevance here.