2013 is Officially the Year of the Selfie

selfieIn early October, The Takeaway explored the possibility of doing a story about The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.  Suspecting that our host would be more than a bit skeptical about the premise of the segment, I spent some time reading up.

We ultimately scrapped the segment but on Tuesday when Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” 2013’s Word of the Year, it was time to return to the topic.   Writer Casey Cep gave Takeaway guest host Anna Sale a lot to chew on in her radio interview. To round things out I blogged about the selfie think-piece and my own relationship with the selfie for On the Media’s TLDR:

I fall into the selfie-averse crowd.  I’ve tried, but I can’t figure out the right angle at which to position my camera or the best way to purse my lips.  At selfie-range, I don’t recognize—or particularly like—my own features.  I’d like to think my selfie-allergy is a symptom of humility but writer Brian Droitcour might interpret it differently.  “The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies,” Droitcour argues. “They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.”

Writing the post was fun; seeing the reaction to the piece on social media has been even more fun. Turns out people have strong feelings about selfies– and about my big cat shirt.

(This photo, by the way, was taken a few hours before my bachelorette party in response to inquiries about my level of excitement.  I was very excited.)

Math Anxiety and a Visit to MoMath

In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math.  Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.

One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen.  A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.

This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math.  Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.

I lucked out that day.  But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.

Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom.  That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan.  Listen to the piece that resulted here.

Crowd-Sourcing a People’s Poem for the Inauguration

When I was in Florida for the Miami Book Fair this past November, I got the chance to see The Takeaway’s Miami affiliate, WLRN, launch a cool crowd-sourced short story project on Twitter.  They recruited Junot Diaz to supply their story with an opening line, sent it out over Twitter, and then watched as listeners pieced together a narrative. It was a real, live, many-headed story — messy but compelling.

Inspired by WLRN’s success, last week, my WNYC colleagues and I decided to attempt a similar project– this time with poetry rather than prose.

The inauguration provided a theme.  The Takeaway invited poet Kwame Dawes to kick things off with a discussion of inaugural poetry last Wednesday.  In that interview, Dawes presented the first (original) line for what would become our crowd-sourced poem:  Say nation. In the wake of quarrels, say hope. We Tweeted out the line and asked listeners to follow up with subsequent lines of their own using the hashtag #prezpoem.

Almost immediately, the lines started pouring in.  By the end of the week, we’d recieved hundreds of Tweets.  On Friday, Dawes returned to the program to survey the lines– and to share the poem he’d assembled from them.  (He was joined by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered the 2009 inaugural poem —  and who had some very smart things to say about poetry and politics.  Hear their whole interview here.)

But it didn’t stop there.  For me, the best part of the project was the grand finale, which aired this morning.  After picking out a couple dozen of the strongest Tweets, I asked their authors to send audio of themselves reading their line (plus a few stanzas before and after). Piecing together the lines with the help of The Takeaway’s resident audio wizard Jay Cowit, a gorgeous audio poetry mash-up emerged.

This is what audio of the final poem sounded like.  And this is what the final text of the poem looked like:

A People’s Poem for the Inauguration

Say “nation.” In the wake of quarrels, say “hope.”
Be not divisive nor divided.

Say “neighbor.” Say, “What can I do?”
Doors open. Together walk through.
In the hurly-burly of the day’s governing
remember the freedom of peace.

At the dawn of uncertain tomorrows, say “change.”
While darkness floods our spirit, say “light” and shatter
all our scattering shadows.

Dream, “neighbor.” In the face of fear, sing, “mercy.”
Hear unity from voices that speak.

Say that freedom, both the blessing and right,
remain the provenance of open minds.
Acknowledge the dreams that birthed a great nation — say “freedom.”
Speak it into action and watch our dreams reshape the future.

And heart in hand, for the sake of the young,
of the old,
of all those who
wade thru injustice’s tide, say “freedom.”

Say and shout and sing! Progress is a storm and our voices the thunder.

Say “peace” for the hearts of a nation’s people, in times of grief.
Say one, say all. To abandon hope is to further the fall
Say “take my hand” to the downtrodden, the lost.
Sing harmonies that blend in a spectrum of love.

In the dark of failures, say “try”; encourage, persist to light.
Say friend, my hand for your strength, your eyes for my light as we forward together.
Say hope is ours.
Wash away morose pessimism and the failings of the nascent.
Remember our virtue; remember our lofty intent.
In the wake of the struggle, speak, so that together we all may speak courage.

Say “hope,” eyes turned not to the gauzy sky
nor to the brassy gates of power
but to the frost-bitten grass beneath our feet.

I need to hear, again, those antiquated words
in this new light.

Love and Death in Miami

Picture 2The big think author panels The Takeaway did at the Miami Book Fair on death and love finally aired on Thursday and Friday and are now all online. At http://www.thetakeaway.org/loveanddeath/ there’s a neat little interactive with short bios with mini audio clips for everyone.

From top left to right: Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust), Carol Blue (the afterward to Mortality), Deni Bechard (Cures for Hunger), Judy Goldman (Losing My Sister) and Susannah Cahalan (Brain on Fire) talked about death.

In the bottom row, left to right: Chris Beha (What Happened to Sophie Wilder), Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins), Nina Revoyr (Wingshooter), Robert Goolrick (Heading Out to Wonderful) and Scott Hutchins (A Working Theory of Love) came together for a conversation about love.

Hot Reads: Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, Try the Morgue, the Middlesteins, A Free Man, The Greatcoat

Let me tell you about this week’s Daily Beast/Newsweek Hot ReadsThe Greatcoat was a fine way to spend a rainy afternoon. Several Ways to Die in Mexico City stumbled into my lap and changed the way I think about what I eat and drink. The Middlesteins is the book I happily read in one sitting.  Try the Morgue is the book I haven’t been able to stop talking about. A Free Man is the book I wish I’d written that I think everyone should read.

Recently on The Takeaway

A round-up of some of the segments I’ve particularly enjoyed working on for The Takeaway recently:

Listeners Respond: Things You Would Have Said  A funny thing happens when you call up strangers and tell them you’re a public radio producer: They tell you things, personal things. After doing a short interview with Jackie Hooper, the author of The Things You Would Have Said, we were flooded with listener comments about things they wished they’d said to people in their past.  I had the task of calling up a handful of listeners for longer phone interviews. We finally aired the stories of three listeners.

An Argument Against Happiness  Last month the United Nations took up the topic of moving beyond conventional economic measures in a session called “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” As a follow-up to our segment on this move, we invited Wake Forest University English Professor Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness, onto the program.  He argued the virtues of melancholy. “In America there is a sense that we can have all up with no down and all light with no dark — that we can be happy all the time,” he said.  “I’m in favor of honestly facing the world as it is and trying to make the best of it.”

March Heat Breaks Records Across the Country According to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 15,000 weather records were set in the United States this March.  John Harold, a farmer in Olathe, Colorado described the dilemmas the unseasonably warm weather had presented on his farm.  Andrew Revkin of The New York Times’ “Dot Earth” blog summed things up this way: “Expect more of the same as the climate warms.”

Walmart’s Mexican Bribery Scandal Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect joined the program from his home in Mexico City to provide some perspective on reports of widespread bribery in Walmart’s Mexican operations.  When Fishman was working on his book years before, he’d been struck by how rigidly ethical the company’s practices were in the US. “What’s interesting is instead of Walmart changing the culture of Mexico, Mexico changed the culture of Walmart,” Fishman said.

Baby Boomers Squeeze Savings to Support Parents and Children  According to a new survey from Ameriprise Financial, more than half of baby boomers help their parents pay for groceries, medical expenses, or utilities. What’s more, a stunning 93% provide their adult children with financial support too. “Boomers’ attitudes about spending and saving have changed dramatically,” Suzanna de Baca of Ameriprise Financial explained. Boomer Mark Niedt in Denver described his own predicament. “While I’d love to be socking away some money for my own retirement, I’m really forced to derail that and give some assistance when I can,” he said.

Men — You Talk Too Much  Yale organizational behavior professor Tori Brescoll shared her fascinating research about just how much powerful men and women talk in the workplace. “Give men power and they’ll talk a lot — but that wasn’t really the case for women,” Brescoll found.  What’s more, women who were particularly outspoken paid a price: They were perceived as incompetent and unlikeable. “Indeed what I found is that whether it was politics or business, really talkative women were really slammed,” she said.

A Sign of the Times: Underearners Anonymous  Genevieve Smith‘s cover story in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine describes her experiences in “Underearner’s Anonymous,” a 12-step program for the chronically underpaid.  She explained how following the country’s economic recovery had made her a “connoisseur of financial pessimism” and why she was drawn to the program.

Behind the Scenes Diplomacy for Chen Guangcheng NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen has maintained a friendship with Chinese dissedent Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade and remained in touch with him as he tried to navigate between US and Chinese officials in the days following his daring escape from house arrest.  “He was confronted by two unattractive opportunities,” Cohen explained.

We Are Equal

The more things change, the more the stay the same.  At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.

Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later.  For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”).  But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955: 

Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom.  There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true.  It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.

But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.

I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago.  “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,”  Chris Galloway said.  As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.

One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today.  But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.

(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).

The Principled Quit

To get a little perspective on Greg Smith’s “I quit” letter to Goldman Sachs while brainstorming at work today, I decided to call up Evan Harris.  Back in 1995 she was pretty much the poster-child for quitting.  She quit her job, boyfriend, and city, and started a zine called Quitters Quarterly.  She was featured in an episode of This American Life, and she wrote a book called The Quit.  Seventeen years later? She’s married with kids, back in her hometown. Here’s what she told me.

Recently on The Takeaway

Here are just some of the segments I’ve recently worked on for The Takeaway:

A New Legal Challenge to Affirmative Action “Since George Washington, universities have been thought of as places where the American melting-pot idea could be realized, in part,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told The Takeaway.  Nearly a decade ago, Bollinger was part of two landmark Supreme Court Cases on affirmative action, Gratz vs. Bollinger and Grutter vs. Bollinger.  He weighed in on how the new challenge to affirmative action posed by the Fisher vs. Texas case could change the face of the student body of universities of the future.

NYPD Surveillance Program Monitored Muslim Students at 13 Colleges A recently leaked New York Police Department report provides a startling picture of just how far the NYPD’s intelligence division went in a surveillance program targeting monitoring Muslims students at 13 colleges in the northeast. CUNY student Jawad Rasul told The Takeaway he was shocked to find out he’d given an undercover agent a ride to a student whitewater rafting trip. “These things come out which really are kind of a slap in the face to the people who are trying to assimilate into the country and lose our foreign identity to become American,” he said. (More on this story from the WNYC Newsroom.)

Electoral Demographics and the History of Presidential Primaries  Ken C. Davis, author of Don’t Much About History joined the show to help  fact-check some claims made by writer Timothy Egan in a recent New York Times op-ed.  “There is no other way to put this without resorting to demographic bluntness: the small fraction of Americans who are trying to pick the Republican nominee are old, white, uniformly Christian and unrepresentative of the nation at large,” Egan claimed.  Davis explained why that comparison is somewhat — but not entirely — accurate.

60 Lives Connected in the Largest Chain of Kidney Transplants  Candice and Michael Ryan, a husband and wife kidney recipient and donor shared their moving experience as part of the largest-ever chain of kidney transplants.  “It’s life-changing,” an emotional Candice Ryan told The Takeaway.  Check out The New York Times’ incredible multimedia coverage of this story here.

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jingping Visits The US  The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows explained how the Communist Party’s role in business has evolved in China.  Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association also joined the show to discuss how Vice-President Xi’s visit to the state would reinforce a multi-billion dollar trade partnership.

California’s Ban on Gay Marriage Struck Down  “You cannot give a right to marry and then take it away solely on the ground that the individuals that you are taking it away from are a despised or disfavored group,” explained NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino.  While working on this segment, I also recorded a short audio interview with John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, a phenomenal couple.  Read more about them here or listen to a longer interview with them from 2010 here.

Tebow Bill May Allow Home-Schoolers to Play on High School Teams  Homeschooler Patrick Foss is a talented soccer player heading to University of Virginia in the fall to play college soccer. He told The Takeaway he wished he’d been able to play soccer on the local high school team. “My parents are taxpayers just like next door neighbors, just like the person two doors down who is the starting point-guard at our high school,” he said.

The Hours

For a little more than a year now, I’ve been working the early early shift.  Most days, I leave my apartment at 3 a.m. to be at my desk by 3:30 a.m.   At least once a week, I’m in an hour before that.  “I don’t know how you do it,” people tell me.  When I think about the fact that the Dalai Lama typically wakes up at least 45 minutes later than I do, I don’t know either.

But secretly, I’ve come to really enjoy the shift. I like slipping out of my apartment building before anyone is awake to greet Carlos, the calm and collected driver who works for the car service contracted by my office.  As he drives his Benz (yes, I ride a Benz to work!) through the deserted streets, we complain about how tired we are.  We talk about politics, money, Moammar Gadhafi, the weather, and our weekends as I scan the latest headlines on my phone.  Sipping my tea and looking out at the Manhattan skyline, I brace myself for the day ahead.

Most days, my shift goes quickly.  A deadline every half-hour keeps me on my toes.  After the show ends, I stumble out into the sunshine, the day entirely open to me. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read.  Sometimes I sit in the park.   Sometimes I meet underemployed friends for dawdling, decadent lunches.   Sometimes I go for a run along the West Side Highway, or to an early afternoon yoga class.   There’s hardly anyone at the gym when I get there, and while the lunch rush swells in and out, I take my time.

I take naps. I stay up too late.  I fall asleep on the subway on my way home from work every single day.  I’ve learned to loop my purse around my arms as soon as I sit down so that once I’m asleep it’s not a temptation for anyone else riding a mid-afternoon Queens-bound train.  Once in a while, I oversleep and miss my stop.  I walk the extra avenues home in the bright mid-morning light cursing myself.

Strangely, I haven’t overslept my shift once.

A few weeks after I started this job, my coworker Sitara emailed out a poem called “Four a.m.” by Wislawa Szymborska.  It remains tacked up to the wall of my work-station:

The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.
Empty hour.
Hollow. Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours. No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

I won’t dispute it: 4 a.m. is the rock-bottom hour.  But I’ve grown to savor the luxury of the many other free hours my work schedule affords.  Once work is out of the way, the entire day is mine, and there are always more than enough ways to spend it.  After next week, I start a new shift.  I’ll be saying goodbye to my morning crew buddies (hands down, the coolest kids I’ve ever worked with) to take up a new daytime role.   I’ll arrive at the office after the sun’s come up and leave before the sun goes down like most people do.  “Let five a.m. come!” I thought to myself when my boss delivered the news.  We’ve got to go on living.