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Good Tape

The week we moved to New York, I found out I had been invited to participate in a podcast development program sponsored by the City of New York. There were hundreds of applicants for just 20 slots, so I felt rather humbled to be included.

By the end of the class, I should (in theory) be able to put together a basic audio story that I have conceived, recorded, edited, and otherwise produced on my own. The work is fast-paced—just two weeks in and I’ve completed my first assignment and am in the middle of editing and recording the second.

The class has stretched me in the best possible ways. The thing I always knew I was good at—using words to tell stories—has much higher stakes in this format. For one thing, I have to get someone else to say the words I want to use, then as I twist and shape the words in editing, I have to ask myself if I’m remaining true to their intentions when they said them. When I hear a story now, I just hear the compounded parts of the effort: The music sweeping in at just the right time. The decision to cut here instead of there. The minute instances when I can hear a rough edit. The entrance of the narrator to move the story along.

Growing up, I wanted desperately to be a journalist—Diane Sawyer. Barbara Walters. Connie Chung. Christiane Amanpour.—and yet I remember the slow realization during freshman year of college that it would not be my path in life. After all, unpaid internships presented an impossible hurdle to a poor kid from the south.

There were a lot of reasons I might not have succeeded as a journalist anyway. Again, as a woman from the south, I was taught to be deferential—to move and shift in such a way as to never be a burden to anyone; politeness to the point of non-existence. Combined with my deep reverence for the craft, I struggled with insecurities about “doing it right,” of putting anyone out with my questions, of bothering people who so clearly didn’t want to be bothered. These are not, I suspect, fears that Christiane Amanpour takes into her interviews with world leaders.

A few months ago, I had a chance to interview people I respect and admire. People who make audio for a living, and very good, smart audio at that. I mapped out my questions so that I would not stumble over myself. I learned how to use my phone to record their answers so there were would be no missteps of lost audio. Even with all of my preparation, I can hear the fear in my voice standing next to them. I cannot be indifferent. I cannot ignore their power in the world, or their power over me. It’s a reflex to enthusiastically celebrate things I love.

And so now I am here again, nudged to reach out to the world and ask it questions. It is a delightfully terrifying challenge. The first week we were tasked with creating an “audio postcard,” a snippet of a scene. On my way home from class, I pulled out my recorder and captured the sounds of the 1 train—the bing/bong of the closing door, the static-filled voice over the loudspeaker—and then, the voice of a busker.

At first, I just record him from the other side of the train, and then as he’s about to get off, I ask him if he’ll stay on another minute so I can ask him questions, and he does. He sings his song again for me, closer to my recorder this time. And then the next stop comes and he hops off.

I go home and I listen to what I captured. The sound is not very good, but his laugh is magical. I edit and tweak and walk away a hundred times before I finally say, this has to be done now.

This week the assignment is more challenging. We’re to go out on the street (any street) and ask questions, and from that build a story. My introversion is being tested. And at 33, I no longer look like the “student” I’m proposing to be when I ask someone for a moment of their time.

I encounter language barriers with my neighbors—real or created—and so I ask Google to help me translate.

“Hola, ¿puedo hacerte una pregunta?”

“¿Quién está ganando?”

“¿Qué te gusta de nuestro vecindario?”

They mostly giggle at me, which, incidentally, makes for good tape too.

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What I'm Doing

We Are Surely in the Thick of It

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a week since I wrote this, and in that time the world feels ever darker. I wish I was one of those writers who could inspire you to see beyond this moment and imagine a brighter future, but like many of you, I am thoroughly in the thick of it, looking for answers myself.

As this project from The Wall Street Journal visualizes, my Facebook and Twitter feed is filled with friends who pour their hearts out over these latest injustices, and while I am grateful for their company, the opposition that must surely exist is silent, at least in my timelines. I cannot determine if this is because they realize their mistake and are shamed, or if the algorithm only shows me want I want to see. I’m not sure it matters, truthfully, because if there are people who choose to remain steadfast in their politics regardless of what is moral and good, I do not think I want to know them anymore.

Before I moved here, like most people I did not realize that the people who live and work in Washington, DC actually have no representation in Congress. When you want to express outrage, you call your Senator or Representative; despite living 2 miles from the White House, I have no one to call, no one to own my outrage on my behalf. Thankfully, we are a city of people uninterested in remaining silent. While we work on getting representation, here are some ways we’re calling bullshit. Here’s what you can do to help.

Friends, I urge to take care of yourself. This is a long battle and we can not afford to grow weary or complacent. I’m making biscuits. Pretty terrible ones, if I’m being honest. Sometimes they’re flat and mostly they lack flavor, but I’m going to keep working at it, because it’s something I can put my energies into for right now. Find something that is yours and dive into when you need a break.

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In 2016, We Don’t Deserve Frank

I embraced Tootie’s ugly cry today.

I stood in line to pick up my dry cleaning as Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” pushed its way out of a radio on the back counter. Even from its tinny speakers, his croon seized me and I felt the tears swell up. I paid for my clothes and hurried outside lest they see me go into full out cry.

2016 has been a shit year, friends.

In 2016, the year of our lord, we don’t deserve Frank, and we definitely don’t deserve Judy.

I spent the past week trying to return to routines that felt strangely unnatural. I cleaned. I podcast. I watched hours of Great British Bake Off until my eyes turned glassy. And 15 seconds of Frank undid it all.

Because next year all of our troubles won’t be out of sight, friends. They are just beginning, and that is a hard truth to accept.

I love institutions. I love believing in democracy, in checks and balances. I love the idea of collective action. I damn near lose it when everyone stops to sing the national anthem at ball games. But somehow it feels like our system failed this time and that’s why I can’t believe we are here. We are supposed to be in a different place. We’re not supposed to still be debating whether women deserve equal rights, whether we should open our doors to those seeking refuge. We are supposed to be forging a path against climate change. We are supposed to be feeding millions of poor and curing diseases. We are supposed to be inventing great things we haven’t even imagined yet.

Instead, white supremacists are yelling “Hail Trump” in a federal building.

So for now, we have to be vigilant and we have to be persistent and we have to be loud because I’m not ready to give up on that future I imagined. We have to find the places where we’re going to keep pushing forward.

2016 was a shit year, friends, but next year we have a chance to begin better.

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What I'm Doing

Things I Loved in 2015

Holiday Fireplace 2015

I’m coming to you from a cabin in the deepest part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no cell signal for 30 miles, and a shaky wi-fi signal at best. I’m settled in by the fire with a dog at my feet, and it feels like a pretty nice way to close out the year.

What brought me happiness this year? David, travels, meals with friends, and everything on the list below. I hope it brings you happiness too.

Broad City

Oh, friends. Without a doubt, Broad City is one of my very favorite things about this year. Irreverent. Smart. Feminist. Start with the deep cuts—the original YouTube series—and then move on to the more polished Comedy Central episodes. Yas kween!

Podcasts

I’ve loved and lost a lot of podcasts this year. Long time standbys like RadioLab and Planet Money were replaced with Reply All, Here Be Monsters and Imaginary Worlds. As the podcast community continues to evolve, it can be tough to cut through the noise. Thanks to sites like The Timbre and NPR’s Earbud.fm, I was able to build playlists based on the kinds of stories I want to hear, including Fresh Air, Note to Self and HumaNature.

Amy Schumer

I thought Trainwreck was hilarious, but more than that, Amy Schumer is unapologetically feminist and flawed. I can only love her.

Public Art

How many times have you been moved to tears by public art? I can count at least three times this year alone. There is something so vulnerable about painting your mural, or blasting your horn, in such a public way. In November, David and I stumbled upon a couple of members of the Hot Gumbo Brass Band playing on a street corner in Norfolk. For 10 minutes or more I was totally transfixed to be so close to live music, to feel the complete abandon with which they played. I opened my purse and gave them all of my monies.

Elena Ferrante

In December, I decided to be really honest with the members of my book club: I had found it to be a rather miserable year of reading. I started each book, intent on expanding my literary horizons, only to despise title after title. After giving up early in the book, I would then lament the remainder of the month, abstaining from other pleasurable reads as penance. After such a careful and ambitious selection process, it turned out that I only liked a single book in our entire list—my own contribution—Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I liked it so much I’ve settled into reading the entire Neapolitan series, beginning with My Brilliant Friend.

Pasta

Remember that time we all decided not to eat pasta anymore? Well, in 2015, I remembered why we fucking eat pasta. Give me Bar Primi, Red Hen and 25 cent packs of ramen all. day. long.

Linguine for lunch @barprimi. A photo posted by Bar Primi (@barprimi) on

Vermont

From the train ride up, to the long-ass bike ride out into the middle of a lake, Vermont is a lovely place to visit.

One Tab

It would not unfair to say my stronghold on the Internet relies on this one little Chrome extension. Download this sweet tool and let it forever keep your world in check.

Love

“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. It is so ordered.”

Is there anything that matter more this year? The answer is no.

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Why Thanksgiving is a Great Time to Get Rid of Stuff

Kitchen Pantry

I know not a few hoarders of kitchen things. These folks have kept every dish they’ve ever owned, no matter how chipped or abused. Every burned pan, even single-use object, every obscure ingredient remnant.* They move these items from home-to-home, even if they rarely see the light-of-day at the back of a forlorn cabinet.

These people give me heartburn.

Thanksgiving is actually a great opportunity to reassess your kitchen. After all, if you haven’t used a tool or a tray at Thanksgiving—the most epic day of all meal-making—is it really needed? Or in such a quantity? Maybe it’s even time to upgrade the version you have?

This year, I hosted a Friendsgiving event (a veritable practice-run for the big day), and as I carefully executed the meal, I gave myself time to notice which objects became invaluable and which were never touched.

Ditch Single Use Objects

Like Alton Brown, I despise single-use tools. Ice cream makers, pasta makers, those weird corn-cob things owned by people who never eat corn on the cob. I will also put apple corers, chopsticks and nutcrackers in this category.

Take a look around your kitchen and see what kind of single-use tchotchkes are cluttering your space. You can probably find at least a few hidden offenders in your pan collection: unless you make muffins, donuts, or other irregularly shaped food items, time to ditch the baking tins.

Eliminate Items That No Longer Match Your Lifestyle

When I became mostly vegetarian, regular use of my slow cooker ground to a halt. My rice cooker, blender and bread maker? I realized I wasn’t using them very much either. On to Craig’s List they went. Revisit your kitchen through the lens of food prep on an average Thursday night—I doubt those super fancy napkins rings or margarita glasses play a part in it.

And while you’re at it, give your food cabinets this same once over. Rid yourself of rare ingredients that you’ll never use again (er…candied ginger) or that will have expired by your next use anyway (ahem, yeast). I once bought bags of quinoa only to learn I hate quinoa. I’ve off-loaded it to my quinoa-loving friends, making more room for things that really matter…like chocolate.

Get Serious About Extraneous Items

When I think of the number of ketchup and soy packets I cleaned out of our fridge, I’m a little ashamed. We stockpile that shit from takeaway bags like we don’t have full containers of both already in our fridge. Now is the time to pour the remnants of old products into new ones (or toss them entirely).

When I looked in our silverware drawer, I noticed a random assortment of spoons, knives and forks—and absolutely no idea how they got there. We cleared out all but our original set. We also checked plates, bowls and glasses for chips or breaks—no use waiting until they shatter in the dishwasher.

It’s also a good idea to take a closer look at the total number of items you are keeping. We had 50 different leftover containers for just 2 people. We threw away our hodgepodge of containers and invested in one set of matching Rubbermaid pieces designed to fit together nicely in our drawers.

Face the Scourge of Emotional Baggage in the Kitchen

In the South, it’s very common for mothers to bestow their daughters with a “hope chest” of things she will use when starting her own home. As the recipient of a rather robust hope chest from my own mother, I entered my first apartment completely prepared to make all of my favorite meals (thanks, mom!). Over time, however, these well-loved objects have become either outdated or obsolete. Of all the things in my kitchen, these are the hardest to let go. Thanks for the weird emotional attachment to objects, Disney.

It might seem cheesy, but Marie Kondo suggests that you thank these items for their service before they leave your kitchen. This simple act has helped me to find greater appreciation for the items that remain.

And finally…

As your kitchen empties out, you’ll be tempted to restock it with new things. Don’t. Give yourself and your appliances a little breathing room—after all, Christmas is just around the corner.

 

**I once cleaned out my mom’s fridge and found ingredients that were more than 10 years old. shudder

 

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What I'm Doing

A Seat on the Train

When we decided to travel to Vermont by train, I looked forward to the trip with atypical giddiness. I imagined 12 hours of uninterrupted writing, reading, sleeping.

It was that and not. It was that and more.

The first leg of the trip—12 hours from Union Station in Washington, DC, to a tiny train stop in Essex Junction, Vermont—was dedicated to work. I spent the hours hunched over my laptop, desperately swearing at the unreliable wi-fi, cajoling it to please…just…work. As the hours ticked by, I’d wearily look over at David, consumed in his computer game. Every few hours I’d take a bathroom break—long enough to look up and realized we were passing over some bridge, crossing through some unknown town—but otherwise, I was decidedly focused.

I promised that at 5 p.m.—9 hours into the trip at that point—I’d turn off the work email, and settle into the quiet rumble of the car (it was 7 p.m. before I put the laptop away). By then, I was tired, dirty and dehydrated. I turned on a favorite movie on the iPad, determined to simply tune out. Head resting against the window, I found myself absorbed in the passing landscape—I watched the sharp blue skies and downy clouds of New Hampshire and Vermont shift into evening. Every moment my window seemed to shapeshift into another verdant mountain, another quiet pond. It was breathtaking.

Outside me, the world of the train had carried on. We quickly learned the Vermonter is a short train—just five cars. There was no quiet car–the greatest tragedy of our journey. David and I could have sat in near total silence for the entire 12 hours, still completely at ease in our mutual company.

The funny thing about trains is how much they are unlike cars. Cars require the constant attention of its occupants, constant notice of its neighboring vehicle. A driver can easily find themselves distracted by all the things to do in a car: steer the wheel, change the radio station, plug in a phone, reach to the glove compartment, navigate. On the train, these kinds of mechanical distractions are removed—which in theory was our reason for taking the train at all. But for others, these absence of these familiar distractions only served to help them identify new routines to pass the time.

I think it’s fair to say that David and I were in a constant mode of “do no harm.” As we entered the train, we carefully tucked our belongs into our seats, making ourselves as small as possible to cause initiate no trouble to our fellow passengers. We dutifully threw away our garbage, left the bathrooms clean, kept our noise to minimum. What surprised me most about the train was how often this rule was ignored by others.

On the train, I found myself wholly distracted by:

  • Loud phone calls—both full and open business meetings, personal calls to long-lost friends, the placing of orders.
  • Kissing — full on sucking noises from my backseat neighbors.
  • Screaming kids — running up and down aisles, banging on bathroom doors, throwing trash and Cheerios all over carpets.
  • Music — from playlists without headphones, to loud humming, to cell phone jingles.

No amount of earplugs or headphones could contain the masses.

But oh, the people watching.

My train neighbors were of every race, and age, and locality. I watched an elderly woman, no doubt on her way home, carefully deposited at a train station by a loving family member. I saw whole gaggles of women arrive on the train with shopping bags and suitcases, likely on their way to some weekend getaway. I marveled at the parents with the fortitude to bring their children on the long ride, to read to them the same books over and over, to not weary of being Elmo or Batman for the fifth time. Students heading back to college. Single women using the train to take them to some new adventure. Business men and women.

Unsurprisingly, there are gluts of riders who board and exit at stations like DC, New York and Philadelphia, but these longer layovers often allowed us a welcome chance to exit the train and breathe station air for a few short moments.

The train conductors were an entirely other matter. Sometimes, friendly, sometimes masters of their domain, I watched them turn over at regular intervals. I would guess that each 12-hour ride saw no fewer than 5 different conductors. At the origin of our return trip, one conductor had pushed the riders into two cars by locking the three ahead. His rationale was fair: families and couples had far fewer chances of finding seats together the further the train traveled and he wanted to give them a fighting change. Another conductor asked us to pack up and make our way to the doors more than 20 minutes before we were scheduled to arrive at our final destination.

I saw people who reminded me of my own small town family. We passed town after working class town. Gas stations and grocery stories that looked local and worn. We passed one area of Vermont where people came out to their front porches to wave at the train—this train that must surely pass through their windows with an absurd regularity. In one small town, we watched kids and parents gathering in a town square to stare and marvel at the passing locomotive.

I wish I’d given myself more time to dream on the train. My baser tendencies kicked in and I pulled my Twitter feed ceaselessly. I played podcast after podcast determined to drown out my vicious seat-mates. I started a new, albeit absorbing novel. I let the train carry me to and from home without much thought to its final destination.

Even so, I emerged content with how I had spent my time. For 24 hours I was the master of a very tiny domain—one the size of a a perfectly comfortable seat.

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Musical Re-Education


My earliest memory of music was my older brother teaching me Frère Jacques. He was in high school or middle school and because he had the voice of angel (and also a great love of Dolly Parton, Bette Middler and Amy Grant, which, should have clued us all in to a much later reveal), he had joined the choir.

As he moved through lovely renditions of “Do Re Mi,” he would try to teach me what it meant to sing on-key. To sing from the diaphragm. To sing not squawk, for god’s sake. But nothing doing—I did not possess a musical talent. I made dogs whimper at my sounds.

I took this knowledge in stride, and beyond soothing my fractious teenage years with boybands and mix tapes, I never really looked back at music. I didn’t join the band. I didn’t pick up any musical instruments. I don’t even watch The Grammy’s.

Lately though, I’ve developed an appreciation for stories about music and how it is made. Not Vh1 Behind the Music, exactly, but just how does music get created, promoted, popularized.

And instead of relying on the perfect algorithms of Spotify, Pandora and the radio, I’m asking people to share their music with me.

It’s all making for a pretty re-education in music.

And my brother? Well, let’s just say he found a way to use his talents too, and I couldn’t be more proud.

More of the Same

I am obsessed with two kinds of music: covers and acoustic covers. Thanks Facebook ticker for sending me to the BBC Radio 1 YouTube channel where I can watch pop stars cover the hits of other pop stars all day long.

Check out Song Exploder, a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.  Start with Episode 1 – The Postal Service and remind yourself why The District Sleeps Alone Tonight is a hell of a record.

My colleague introduced me to Brown Bird and its been heavy on my rotation. Listen to this indelible set and then cry because it’s all over forever.

The guys at Pitch teach you all about The Clearmountain Pause and explain why a few seconds of silence can be an underestimated act of musical production.

And of course I’ve got you covered with this most excellent 70’s playlist.

Be easy, friends.

 

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