Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Like the rest of the universe, I fell in love with the podcast Serial this fall.  If you haven't heard of it, it is a program produced by some of the journalists from the super popular radio show This American Life.  Instead of spending one show on a topic, it followed a story for a week by week discussion.  In this case, it was an investigation in the murder case of a young woman, and the man convicted in her murder.  It was compelling story telling, for sure.  Just last evening, I had a very lively discussion with the women in my Bible study about the series.  We had all sorts of opinions about what actually happened, weighed in on our observations about the shortcomings of the defense, and were thrilled to find new links to interviews (want to hear more from Jay if you haven't yet?) and parodies of the program. (Seriously, this SNL skit is right on target.) It even led to a compelling discussion about the presence of Islamic leadership in public debate.  I love the idea that thoughtful, passionate discussions are being generated all across the country by programming like this.

I've been listening to podcasts for a number of years now, my habit often keeping me from listening to audiobooks as much as I would like.  I am constantly subscribing and unsubscribing to podcasts, hoping I'll find the time to listen to a new series, trying to keep up with old favorites, and being disappointed by the majority of new finds that I hope will be winners.

I find myself googling things like: "Why is Mark Garrison no longer co-hosting The Sporkful?" (no satisfactory answer there) "When will Alton Brown have a new episode of The Brown Cast?  (Also unclear).  "What are Mike Birbiglia's stand up tour dates?"

I love that the popularity of Serial has led to a surge in the production of new podcasts and a broad availability of quality, well produced podcast programming with thoughtful and timely content.  I keep finding new ones that I would like to listen to, so that I may never be able to update my phone again due to lack of available memory.

The podcasts I listen to on a regular basis continue to be Radiolab, This American Life, and Spilled Milk.  I can't keep up with The Moth or The Splendid Table, though I do really enjoy them both.  I listened to quite a few of Andrew Zimmern's (of Travel Channel fame) Go Fork Yourself, and liked it, but ultimately gave it up.

I am also quite enamored with Alex Blumberg's chronicle of his venture in creating a podcast business, StartUp. He's just so likable, honest and self deprecating, and makes what could be a really boring   Must be because he's originally from Cincinnati. I would have never thought I'd be hooked by stories of a business venture, but since they are going at it from a human interest perspective, it definitely works.  Recommended episodes: "We Made a Mistake" and "Burnout"

The now successful podcast business started by Blumberg and his associates, Gimlet Media, has also produced the podcast Reply All, which looks at lesser known aspects of the internet.  I've found it really informative and fascinating so far.  The hosts, like me, are old enough to remember what the internet looked like back in the age of dial up, chat rooms, and a CD from AOL everyone received in the mail. The show so far has been a good mix of history lesson on the evolution of the internet and a peek into some aspects I never knew even existed on today's web.  Recommended episodes:  "Follow the Money" and "Anxiety Box."

I have recently discovered Poem of the Day podcast, put out by the Poetry Foundation.  I used to subscribe to their daily email, but found I rarely got to it, and ended up getting rid of that particular email clutter.   I like the fact that these are read aloud, one of my favorite ways to experience a poem. A poem a day seems like a definite good thing to add to the otherwise ridiculous things that fill up my head.  BuzzFeed, I'm looking at you.

Perhaps the podcast I'm most excited about currently is a new one also produced by NPR.  Invisibilia has hosts who are from two of my all time favorites: This American Life and Radiolab.  This show mixes two of the things I like most: science and human interest.  Now if they could just add some food to the mix, it would be perfect.  I've liked all of the episodes of this show so far, but the one that has had me thinking well beyond the hour I listened was the episode "Batman."  I highly recommend it, but if you would rather not listen to the full podcast, you can read the text of it in the written transcript which can be found here and here.

The gist of this episode is that our expectations of others can absolutely define what they can and cannot do.  They begin by describing an experiment with rats, in which rats that were labeled as "smart rats" did twice as well on learning tasks than ones labeled "dumb rats" even though the rats were actually no different.  There is mention about the fact that our internal ideas of people subconsciously effect how we treat them, but then we are off to the meat of the story.  Which is, that blind people actually can be trained to see, even if they do not have eyes.  You have to read or listen to the whole thing to get the full effect of this line of reasoning, but there is a very convincing case made here.

More importantly, the piece goes on to discuss, is that many of the limitations that blind people have in our society are there solely because we do not expect blind people to be able to do certain things.  So says the man at the focus of the story, Daniel Kish, a blind man who regularly hikes as well as rides a bike.  He uses a series of clicks he makes with his mouth to produce a form of echo location to find his way around the world.

Daniel is convinced that most blind people can be taught to use these clicks and then can experience a great sense of independence in the world that many blind people today do not.  He is today working to teach as many people as he can, and overall trying to change our society's perception of the abilities of people without vision.

As I listened, I found myself waiting for the episode to return to its opening premise, which was that in general, our thoughts about others define not only our own expectations and perceptions, but actually influence those people and literally change them or create who they become.  It did not really ever come back around to that, to the point that I started to wonder if I was making a bigger deal of that generalization than I should.

But the thing is, when Daniel was describing working with a blind boy, who had never been allowed to climb a tree, and in effect bullying him to keep going and going up that tree, not allowing him to give up and jump down until he finally caught on to finding his way up to a high branch, I nearly cried.  Not because I felt sorry for the child, but because I found myself thinking: what experiences have I kept my own kids from having, merely because of my own thoughts of what they are not capable of doing?  This show really hit me in the parenting gut.

Have you seen the television show Master Chef Junior?  It's a cooking competition featuring children ages 8-13.  The kids on that show are amazing: whipping up complex dishes using elaborate cooking techniques and well honed knife skills. Every time I watch it with my kids, I find myself thinking that the parents of these contestants much have coached them so hard, maybe just for the chance at fame.  My kids certainly could never do such things.  They can barely get a sandwich made, or pour themselves a bowl of cereal.  But what if, what if, it's really less about coaching intensively and all about expectations.  I don't imagine that my kids are capable of adult level cooking skills, so I don't even give them the opportunities to learn them alongside me.  How many chances have I really given them?

I know of course, that there is no reason for me to beat myself up over this kind of thing.  If my kids show an interest in anything, I'm more than glad to offer to help them learn, and I don't think I can ever be accused of denying my kids opportunities I don't approve of somehow.  I try hard not to narrowly define who my children can and should be in all areas including expected gender roles, intellectual and physical ability, and their future selves.

But this episode really got me thinking about all the tricky ways that our expectations influence so many things around us.  It made me think I need to not only be sure I don't discourage them, but also more intent on encouraging them.  Who knows in what ways I've shut doors even based on the positive attributes I see as defining of them? Give them as many chances to do and try things even outside their comfort zone, and to actively push them to do things that they think are kind of hard.  I do know that I am guilty of not always pushing them to complete tasks that cause them to struggle.  But if I have every confidence that they can and will finish things, of course they more likely will.  This is the Tiger Mom principle at its heart, which of course can go astray, and lead to some ridiculously brutal experiences for kids and not enough chances for grace.  But, I'm definitely thinking about the areas of my kids' lives where perhaps I've already given them some labels that I could change up to less limiting descriptors of their selves.

I don't want to get all "The Power of Positive Thinking" here, and apply the equivalent of cheesy motivational posters to my parenting style.  But, the more I can positively expect of the people that I'm responsible for, the better.  This "creating good, kind, smart, successful people that love God and want to help make the world a better place" job sure is not that easy.  Who knew a story about a blind guy riding a bicycle would be yet another place to remind me of that?

I promise this is the last you'll hear from me on podcasts for a little while, but I do hope that you'll be encouraged to seek at least one out and give it a listen.


Megan -- booksandcarbs said...

I dabbled a bit several years ago, but these days I do not listen to Podcasts. Sounds like I should. It's just hard for me to replace audiobooks with anything because they are so integral to my daily life and sanity. Sounds like I should broaden my listening horizons. I am definitely going to listen to the one about the blindness and expectations. I'm reading Farmer Boy to my boys right now (second time through for the elder), and I am constantly struck by how much Almanzo is capable of doing and understanding around the farm. My kids can barely make their beds, set a table, carry dirty clothes down one flight of steps, transport their plates to the sink (much less the dishwasher), and etc. Almanzo is feeding stock, working in the fields, raising a pig, cultivating a milk-fed pumpkin, and MORE ... because he was expected to do so and viewed as capable of learning. I am in a defeatist place about my parenting right now so maybe I need a kick of inspiration.

Tina said...

As a child, I loved Farmer Boy. I am quite resilient now as an adult and part of it is the way my parents raised me, part is due to the traits I admired in characters like Almanzo as a child.