"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Why I Listen to Podcasts

If you know me at all you know that I’m always talking about this podcast or that podcast, and usually doing a poor job of trying to retell whatever story it was that I listened to. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of one of my favorite podcasts, Nocturne. The review was inspired by another podcast review website, The Timbre, that created something I didn’t know I needed: a place for people discuss podcasts in a meaningful, thoughtful way. The writers of that website recently moved on to other things, and the absence they created has been weighing heavily on my mind for a while.

So, what’s the deal with podcasts anyway? Why do I spend time on them when there are so many other forms of entertainment out there? I suppose we should start from the beginning.

I’ve always had a soft spot for public radio. NPR was usually on in my parent’s bedroom when I was little, and on Saturday mornings we would sometimes listen to Car Talk or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Sometimes we would listen to the news in the car. I could be wrong, but I’ve always gotten the impression that people who work in public radio are happier than other people. Of course, you can’t paint an entire profession in a single stroke, but my overall impression was one of a thoughtful, kind, and endlessly curious bunch.

While I had a casual relationship to radio from a young age, I didn’t start listening to podcasts until I was in high school. My mom tried to get me to listen to an architecture and design podcast called 99% Invisible, but I was skeptical. Architecture and design? How could you make an audio show about something so visual? And who’s to say it would even be interesting?

I still remember the episode that got me hooked. It was about secret staircases tucked into Los Angeles neighborhoods. The episode opens with the reporter following directions to a set of partially hidden public stairs. You can hear the surprise in his voice when finally stumbles across them, and the exclamation, "Holy Moly I totally missed this! I almost walked right past these steps." With those words, I felt like I’d been lifted out of my dull life and shown something miraculous. If there were secret staircases in Los Angeles, why couldn’t there be other secrets hidden just below the surface in other cities, in my city?

My favorite books have the power to make me see the world a little bit differently when I'm finished. My favorite podcasts, I've found, share this ability. What's more, I simply enjoy the act of listening to audio. Podcasts fall into the sweet spot between television and books. Like television, you can be doing something else while a podcast is on: making dinner, or doing laundry, or driving (don't drive and watch TV at the same time, kids). Like books, podcasts let you do the imaginative work of putting images to the sounds you're hearing.  I'm fascinated not only by the people who populate the podcasts I listen to, but the sounds, too. How is it that a familiar sound immediately sparks an image in your brain? When you think about it, it's truly amazing that you know exactly what the sound of a car door slamming or boiling water in a kettle looks like. Besides, there's something so very human about listening to another person's voice. Who wouldn't want to feel that kind of connection every day on their drive to work?

Podcasts fuel my curiosity about the world. They introduce me to people I never would have met, and allow me to be privy to conversations I never would have had. I've laughed and cried while listening to podcasts. They are source of knowledge, of comfort, a window into the vastly interesting world we live in. I want to do more podcast reviews on this blog. I want to talk about the things I listen to. Because curiosity is important. Because using your imagination in a world full of screens and handed-to-you ultimatums is so, so important.

If you're new to your own podcasting journey, here are some of my favorite episodes of all time. Pick one. Listen. When it's over, you might just see things a little differently.

"Heyoon" - 99% Invisible
"Things" - Radiolab
"Today's the Day!" - Reply All
"The Living Room" - Love + Radio
"Mary Oliver - Listening to the World" - On Being
"Nothing to Lose" - Millennial
"Some Summer Stories" - Home of the Brave
"Champion of Nothing" - 30 Minutes West
"9 Things We Learned About Phones from a Teenager" - Note to Self
"Wild Ones Live" - 99% Invisible

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Drop in the Bucket: Making a Collage

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way that I prioritize my creative projects. Often I catch myself putting my ideas into arbitrary categories. Writing fiction trumps blogging. Working on the dessert cookbook I want to make trumps painting in my watercolor notebook. I want to do all of these things equally, and yet I still catch myself assigning value to things, often based on what I think other people  expect. I've told people I want to write fiction, so doing anything else feels somehow less important. That's why, today, I decided to make something that didn't have any perceived importance attached to it.

I've been daydreaming about working with paper recently. I love the idea that you can create a picture out of shapes alone, so I decided to try my hand at making a collage. The inspiration for the subject matter came from two of my favorite things: soft, warm light that stretches across a room at sunset, and succulents.


Of course, creating the illusion of light falling on anything with paper alone was an ambitious task for a novice collage-er like me. It took a little while to separate out what papers I should use for different areas (especially that parts that fell into the light), and building a semi-realistic looking cactus out of shapes was no easy task either. Once I had the most important shapes cut out I had to figure out what order to glue them down in. It should have been simple, but one wrong move and I had to peel up the shape and move it without ripping the layers underneath it.

I have so many big, long term ideas in the works, that I think I'd forgotten you could still make something in a single day. By all accounts, this little project should have been last on my list of priorities. It has nothing to do with anything else I'm working on. I don't know what I'm going to do with the finished product. And yet, I got to reconnect with what it feels like to make for the sake of making. One of my favorite quotes about the creative process comes from the writer Brenda Ueland, and while it's specifically about writing, I think it applies to all creative acts: "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." This is how I felt while I was gluing paper today. And if I can feel that way while gluing paper, then maybe I can feel that way while writing a novel and making a cookbook and juggling all the things I want to do.  We all have to pick and choose how we spend our time, so there should be joy in the decision making, and joy in the doing.

** A Drop in the Bucket is a series of posts where I complete one item on my creative bucket list, and share the results **

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Podcast Review: Nocturne

Nocturne is the kind of podcast that begs to be listened to in the dark. Not just because its focus is the night, but because it captures the atmosphere of those lonely, quiet hours between sunset and sunrise.  Nocturne was created by Vanessa Lowe, a self-proclaimed morning person, as a way to combat her own uneasiness about darkness.
While it would be easy to speculate that a show about nighttime could be especially dark and brooding, Lowe presents a broad range of nighttime experience. Episodes about the wonder and awe of stargazing sit comfortably next to the story of a father's terrifying night-time walk with his infant son.
What I love about Nocturne is the way that Lowe is able to weave her own self discovery into the episodes. Some are profiles of people who have a unique relationship to night, while others feature Lowe facing her fears and challenging her own preconceived notions about what it means to be awake in the dark.
What Nocturne does especially well, however, is go beyond simply talking about the subject matter, but evoking the feeling of night as well. The theme song for the show is an open, atmospheric piano melody, prefaced by the sounds we unconsciously associate with night: a symphony of crickets, the hoot of an owl, the mournful bellow of a distant train whistle. The best episodes of Nocturne capitalize on this atmosphere throughout the entire show, the most notable example being Episode 3: What the Baker Saw.
I've listened to this episode probably ten times since it came out, and it still gives me chills. It's a simple story- a baker, working late into the night at a remote art center, witnesses an encounter between two animals and feels somehow pulled into their world. I am fascinated by the way sounds can evoke feelings without needing an explanation or modifier, and the sound design of this episode somehow evokes the isolation of the Marin Headlands, as well as the narrative tension that drives the story forward.
Pegged on its website as "radio essay: a hybrid form of radio storytelling that blends elements of documentary, fiction, and sound art," Nocturne is the atmospheric, sound-rich podcast I'd been waiting for. Wether you listen on a crowded commuter car at eight in the morning, or to stave off insomnia in the wee hours of the night, Nocturne is a treat for anyone who's ever been captivated by darkness.

Recommended episodes:
Episode 3: What the Baker Saw
Episode 8: Into, Under, Through
Episode 9: Forward Momentum
Episode 11: Triumph's Ring
Episode 15: To a Distant Continent