Staff Picks: Sean Cole

Not much happens in March. Daylight savings time begins. But most of us still aren’t sure what daylight savings time is for. The only real holiday in March is St. Patrick’s Day and, being a non-Irish person from Boston, that one always felt like something that everybody else was celebrating. It’s also National Celery Month, National Breast Implant Awareness Month, and National Cheerleading Safety Month. Oh and there’s Lent, which, looked at one way, is a total lack of many things. So I’ve decided that all of my listening recommendations for this non-month of months will be stories in which something, or someone, is missing — stories in which there is an absence, sometimes palpable, sometimes unacknowledged, sometimes through a sudden, grave loss and sometimes through the decision to give something up. 

In 1999, the show did an episode called “Invisible Worlds.” Really, every piece in this episode is great in it’s own way and relates to a sort of absence, i.e. stuff that doesn’t have corporeal substance but is still very much there. There are lots of moments I love, like when an interviewee tells Alex Blumberg, “I guess with all of these radio waves going through my body right now, I guess I feel like a radio sometimes,” and Alex giddily repeats back, “You feel like a radio?!” Or when Nancy Updike says  “I don't just want you to understand neutrinos. I want you to love them.”  

But the stand-out in this episode for me is a collection of five small memoirs curled into the same act like poker cards under the heading “More Powerful Than a Locomotive.” (All of the act names are cribbed from the intro to the old black-and-white Superman TV show.) The personnel is Scott Carrier (my favorite), Lan Samantha Chang, David Sedaris, Brady Udall and Sarah Vowell. Ira & Co. asked all of them to write about a situation in their lives where the invisible thing was something unspoken between each of them and another person. It was like a Rorschach test. Everyone’s example and the way s/he unpacks it is so personally descriptive, in terms of who they are but also how they make sense of what happens to them. It’s a great example of the old adage “Good stories happen to people who know how to tell them.” I’ve quoted, at parties, the same few lines from the Scott Carrier piece maybe a dozen times. It’s the part with the swear word in it. 

As an aside, we did something similar in act two of the “Mistakes Were Made” episode, an act called “You’re Willing to Sacrifice Our Love.” This will be the only recommendation that I had anything to do with, and I’m not suggesting it because of my involvement. In short, after I go through the non-apology apology poem “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, and complain about it, we ask a cadre of contributors to take a crack at the form — to say a kind of mealy “I’m sorry” in a short poem a la WCW’s note to his wife about the missing plums. The results were hilarious. And sad. And haunting in one or two places. A couple of the contributors took more than one stab. My favorite is Shalom Auslander’s third attempt in which the very last word explains everything that came before it. 

Sometimes the thing that’s missing, or only ghostly present, is more abstract — like what Langston Hughes referred to as “a dream deferred.” After President Trump’s travel ban went into effect, we put a show together in about four days called “It’s Working Out Very Nicely,” (a quote from the president at the time). Here at the radio show we still talk about the prologue of that show as one of the most memorable things we’ve ever aired. A group of Somali refugees was at a transit center in Kenya, thinking they’re en route to the United States. A Washington Post reporter named Kevin Sieff captured the very moment they learn that they’re not going anywhere, and their reaction. For my money, there is as much information and emotional power in these 13 minutes as in the most richly reported pieces of journalism we’ve put on the show. You hear the hope disappearing from these men in real time. It’s brutal and incredibly vivid. And yet the structure of it is so simple, just the tape Kevin gathered mixed with Ira and his conversation about it, and Ira’s writing. I’m still stunned that my colleagues turned this around so quickly. I kind of don’t know how they did it. It was like a magic trick. 

The absence at the heart of this next recommendation is a heart. We aired a short piece of fiction in 2004 that we called “Tin Man” on the show but that was originally titled “Guilt.” It’s by Judith Budnitz. We always say the fiction on our show has to work like the true stories we air. That’s not to say it has to be realistic per se, just that it needs to make its own kind of sense and pull you along the way our reported pieces do. In this case, a man’s mother requires a heart transplant and she asks him if she can have his — like his own actual heart that’s pumping blood through his body at that very moment. That sounds funny. But Budnitz doesn’t really play it for comedy. As someone who has virtually made a career out of feeling guilty, and who has often wondered about the size, power, and value of his own heart, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine myself in this guy’s shoes. I don’t want to say too much more about this one. Just listen.

Finally, a piece of writing for which you might need to have tissues handy. I mentioned it in our main staff recommendations page too. But I wanted to suggest it again since it’s so appropo to the theme I’ve concocted here. Ira doesn’t tend to talk about his personal life on the air too much. But in this one case, from early 2017, he had something he wanted (and perhaps needed) to say upon losing his best friend Mary Ahearn. She was 89. They were extremely close. And his tribute to her, “Ask a Very Grown Woman,” is just so brave in it’s candor and willingness to plumb a thorny nest of emotions, and to make something perfectly relatable out of them. My mother died about a year and a half before this aired and I could so identify with the sense that Ira pulls from loss here. I’ve heard or read this piece easily five times, both in the edit room and outside of it, and I well up at the ending every time, if not outright sob. 

I think the best stories on this show, or any show, or anywhere, help explain our own feelings to us better than we can ourselves. I think, in the end, that’s what we’re really after. Helping people through. I said at the beginning that nothing much happens in March. But my ex-girlfriend was born in March, which is not nothing. We just broke up. Again. In March. In a way that was both expected and not. So, maybe it’s not for nothing that I find myself combing through all these stories about absence, and guilt, and loss, and apologies both spoken and unspoken.