Tag Archives: this american life

“objects have lives. they are witness to things.”

There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.

The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.


Photo from This American Life

The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)

Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.


Photo from This American Life

But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.

Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?

Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.


Objects have lives. They are witness to things.



let’s talk leads

Today’s blog post is brought to you by: Blog Posts I am Assigned to Write in Graduate School! Read on if you’d like to learn a thing or two about journalism and the art of starting a story, because I’m about to deconstruct three leads.

Lead Numero Uno: 

You and your wallet have a big stake in huge tax-dodging deals being crafted by big American companies, like Burger King merging with Tim Hortons, the Canadian  coffee and doughnut chain.

From David Cay Johnston’s “Corporate Deadbeats” – Newsweek, 4 Sept. 2014.

Well, look at that. No time wasted getting to that second person pronoun “you.” Not a typical move by journalists, but a good one for Johnston to make. This article is about a merger, and most of us lay people who don’t have a degree in finance start snoozing at the first sign of a business story. Business a tough beat because it involves so much specialized knowledge and vocabulary, and many average readers are turned off by that. Right away, though, Johnston implicates the reader, tells her why this story is so important. Just because you don’t understand the legal lingo of a merger doesn’t mean you’re not affected, Missy. In addition, Johnston spends the rest of the article effectively arguing his point–that the average person’s wealth is tied up with these giant corporations.

Verdict: A+. A good start.

And on to Number Two: 

Barely a year removed from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York faced a crossroads. Congress had set its sights on reform. The biggest banks in the nation had shown that their failure could threaten the entire financial system. Lawmakers wanted new safeguards.

From Jake Bernstein’s “Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash” — ProPublica in association with This American Life, 26 Sept. 2014

This lead starts a fantastic story about Carmen Segarra, a former bank examiner and current whistleblower of the New York Fed. She made secret recordings of conversations between executives, who spoke about how “perceptions” are more important than the realities of the banks they were supposed to be regulating. It’s a fascinating piece of investigative writing… but does the lead live up to the rest of the article?
Close, but not quite. It sets up the scene and an intriguing conflict right away, as any good story should. But remember that bit about business reporting I wrote earlier? This lead doesn’t necessarily draw the typical news reader in. It sounds like a business story, directed at business-oriented readers, which is a shame–this is a story that everyone needs to read (or hear, if you prefer). If an organization like ProPublica aims to democratize the news, they should write in a way that does so.

Verdict: B+. Good writing, but keep the audience in mind.

Final lead:

“It’s a funny day to be on the air,” mused 96.5 The Buzz morning host Afentra on Monday.

From Tim Engle’s “96.5 the Buzz hosts ‘thrilled’ to have jobs after $1 million ‘porn star’ verdict” – Kansas City Star, 29 Sept. 2014
This lead is different from the first two for several reasons: it comes from a straight news story, it’s from a local newspaper, and it’s about porn stars. Two morning show radio hosts were sued after they put together a list of Kansas City’s porn stars–except that one woman, the one doing the suing, wasn’t a porn star at all. (I would know. I went to college with her.) She won her case, and now these radio hosts owe her $1 million in damages for defamation.
But what’s even more shameful is that the Star began their article with a quote. To make it worse, the attribution of choice was “mused.” Mused? What’s wrong with good old “said?” Here’s the real problem with beginning a news story with a quote–besides the fact that it sounds clunky, instead of inviting the reader, it confuses the him by making him guess who’s speaking. If the quote had more of an impact, it’s okay to break the rules–but here, the quote is seriously lacking in punch.
Verdict: D. Sorry KC. I’m still a devoted reader, anyway.

railroads, highways, and stories of self

These stories that we tell about ourselves, they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to, but once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. Even if the story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life; even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

This week’s rerun This American Life ended with this vignette, written by Michael Lewis. The episode’s title, “How I Got Into College,” is a bit deceptive in light of the story told by Lewis. He interviewed Emir Kamenica, a man who came to America as a Bosnian refugee in high school. In his brand new American English class, Kamenica plagiarized an essay from a book he’d stolen in Bosnia. His student teacher was utterly unaware of his cheating, and she was so impressed with his essay that she got him into a private school on full scholarship. Kamenica later went on to Harvard and is now a faculty member at the University of Chicago. The episode of This American Life hired a private investigator to track down the elusive student teacher/possible angel. It’s a fantastic story, and I encourage you to listen to it the next time you’re scrubbing the bathtub and in need of a serious happiness pick-me-up

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Swoon. Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Not to advocate smoking, but swoon, right? Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

It certainly stuck with me; I haven’t been able to shake this metaphor on the infrastructure of personal stories since I heard it on Sunday. 

Lewis digs into the notion that we create ourselves based on how we tell our own histories. This cognitive railroad is the dominant understanding of who we are, and perhaps more importantly, how we came to be. Take this part of the episode:

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself, but I think there’s a not-so-obvious one. When you insist the way Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you? It’s just very different than if you tell yourself that you deserve all the stuff that happens to you—because you happened to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard. That way of telling your story, well that’s what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the Earth.

Is Lewis suggesting that happiness is simply a choice? Well, consider his earlier language. He compares our personal stories to infrastructure–a complex system that takes years to build, and then signifies a sort of cohesion, a means of letting the rest of society to run smoothly. Once infrastructure is built, it’s so tightly fixed that to completely uproot it is to uproot society.

Our personal histories are similar, I think. How we render ourselves, the cognitive reinforcement of repeating a memory from one frame: this creates a personal infrastructure that cannot merely been restructured by waking up one morning and thinking, “La dee da–I’m going to be happy today!” That inner landscape that grows around the railroads and highways is comparable to how we see the world and, furthermore, how we digest and react to its events. Once that landscape grows thicker and the roots deepen, it becomes even more difficult to reframe whatever history we’ve created for ourselves.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image, I think. Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image.  Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

Lewis’ piece examined composing personal infrastructure on an individual, psychological level, but his metaphor can be expanded to a much broader level. After all, what are the stories we tell ourselves but histories? And histories (no, not a single history) should be understood on a pluralistic level, taking into account perspectives beyond a dominant narrative. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Sure, and as Howard Zinn would tell you, the native peoples have their own story to tell about his arrival in the Americas, too.

In terms of our modern world, one might say that the all-encompassing “Media” has a dominant narrative of culture and society stuck in its hammerlock. Of course, the word media itself suggests a plurality of way to tell stories, which already complicates this idea. In the world of news media, journalists are active in creating and framing every article that they write, every piece that they produce. Who they choose to interview, what questions they choose to ask, what quotes they choose to include–all of these factors are directly influenced by their own biases, the infrastructures set in place by their personal histories. And get this: based on their railroads, they put another bolt in the track for those who read their stories. 

The point? Reporters should, at the very least, be aware of their inner infrastructure, even if they can’t put it under construction. Especially as this summer of discontent ends, marked by shells between Gaza and Israel, ISIS’ mass killings in Iraq, ethnic tension in Eastern Europe resulting in a fatal plane crash in Ukraine, and the shooting an unarmed black teenager right here in Missouri, it becomes more and more obvious that these personal infrastructures have consequences on a global scale.