Podcast Binge Results: My Favorite Episodes

Scene: At home on a weekend afternoon. 

Me: Gathering the requisite canine-related items to take Schroeder out for a walk. I tell Jacob I'm taking Schroeder out. 

Jacob: "You just want to take Schroeder for a walk so you can listen to a podcast." 

OK, fine, that is true. But also to get steps. Last Thursday (albeit during my spring break) I reached 20,000 steps. I hadn't hit that milestone on FitBit since our visit to Japan last summer. 

Anyway, with all this podcast listening happening, I'd like to share some of my favorite episodes. The explosion of the podcast as a cultural medium has meant that it's fairly easy for just about anyone to make one. However, it's actually quite difficult to make an exceptionally good one. Perhaps I have just been listening to Terry Gross ask difficult questions for far too long. 

Disclaimer: This list excludes the most famous podcast of all time, Serial, because I haven't listened to it. Yet. The "yet" is actually a "maybe, yet," because I haven't convinced myself that I can sink 12+ hours into a story. Half an hour for pleasure, yes. But hours upon hours? I think that's where my resistance comes in. When I listen to a podcast, I feel strangely compelled to absorb information, knowledge, etc!! 

Here's my list! 

1. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast -- March 2015: Etgar Keret reads Donald Barthelme. I sound like a walking contradiction because this is, indeed, a story. But this podcast passes the "teach me something" test because of the way that Keret and fiction editor Deborah Triesman discuss Barthelme's story, "Chablis," which was published in the magazine in 1983. Also, it's a captivating story, one that held my attention while I walked Schroeder at an unspeakably early hour. 

2. Fresh Air -- March 18, 2015: Daniel Genis. Genis, the son of a Soviet emigre, was convicted of armed robbery back in 2003. He'd gotten addicted to heroin and held people up with a knife to get money to pay his dealer. While in prison, he read over a thousand books. Terry asked her characterisically difficult questions, such as something to the effect of: "You had relatives imprisoned in Soviet gulags. How did it feel to be incarcerated for armed robbery?" Genis has written many articles, including this one on sex in prison that the Woolly Mammoth Theatre referenced for their current show, Lights Rise on Grace, and has a book coming out soon. 

3. RadioLab -- Season 13, Episode 3: How Much Would You Pay For A Year Of Life? RadioLab reporters delve into the controversial buisness of drug pricing and interview both doctors and patients. Another, but weirder, RadioLab favorite is a recent episode called The Living Room. An accidental voyeur discovers something about herself as she peers into lives of neighbors without curtains. 

4. Death, Sex, & Money -- April 8, 2015: In Sickness and In Mental Health. I stumbled across this article via Twitter, quickly taking in the horrors that struck one woman as her husband watched and did his best to help. These people are courageous for sharing their experiences with the whole world. Amazing. 

5. StartUp -- October 2014: How To Name Your Company. Alex and Matt, co-owners of a new media company, tell the story of how they came up with their company's name. It might not sound thrilling, but Alex, a former public radio superstar, tells a story that is both entertaining and informative. 

6. Dear Sugar -- Episode 6: How Do I Survive The Critics? As usual, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond answer a reader's question and delve deep into the issues that surround the question. This time, however, they invite on George Saunders as a guest. He explains how he faces criticism. Sidenote: Why do people criticize him? I kept wondering how he could feel so confident and composed when dealing with nasty or critical feedback. (I tend to prefer the nasty, since it's easier to disregard.) I felt better about accepting feedback and even criticism after listening to how Saunders does it. 

7. On The Media -- April 2, 2015: Jon Ronson and Public Shaming. After Ronson was the guest on the Daily Show, I looked him up and found this podcast. Ronson discusses his new book on shaming here in much more detail than he could on TV. It's fascinating and horrifying to see how people's lives are indelibly changed by strangers on the Internet. 

Please take a moment and share your favorite podcast episodes! 

Crazy Books, Continued

One of the wonderful (and possibly self-fulfilling or even egotistical) aspects of blogging about books is that some of their authors are alive, a smaller percentage of those authors are on social media, and an even smaller number of them actually respond when mentioned in a tweet. Well, lucky me, that happened! In my post earlier this week on books related to mental health, I mentioned two of Dr. Julie Holland's books. I included her twitter handle in my tweet about the post, and she favorited it. I have no idea if she read it, but I still feel like that is pretty nifty. 

So that makes me hesitant to mention some of the drawbacks to her earlier book. (What if she is actually reading this? Does that make her cool and in tune with her readers? Or overly concerned about public opinion? Or does that just make me seem paranoid?) Anyway, I feel like I need to qualify my earlier praise of Weekends at Bellevue. At some points, I was appalled by her hastiness and tough-guy attitude toward her patients. To be fair, she realizes that this attitude is problematic and off-putting to some, and she does work to change it. Nevertheless, it's concerning to see a physician relate patient stories in such a callous tone. Here's an example: 

After I spoke with the hand surgeon and got him to agree to come down, the patient changed his mind, and decided he didn’t want anyone to touch his hand. I got really pissed off then. I argued with him for a while and got nowhere, and then I called him a pussy ... “You’re just chickenshit to have the surgeons sew your hand.” I ridiculously believed I could double-dog dare him into having sutures. He was handcuffed to the chair.
— Holland, 65

It's admirable that she allows herself to be this vulnerable, on the one hand; though on the other, it's disarming and worrisome to see a doctor--a psychiatrist no less--not only think, but also express, such contempt for a patient. She writes more about her "need for self control" with her therapist, Mary. 

Medical school seems to be part of the problem, as she discusses early in the book: "Everywhere, instead of people, I learned to see pathology. I was learning to think like a doctor" (25). I want my doctors to see me as a person! To see only my pathology is to see only a small piece of who I am, and it may even mean missing out on key information that could lead to a diagnosis. 

Her softer side emerges at times. She conveys her conflicted feelings about leaving patients locked up all week while she went about her business in the outside world. She tells other stories of how she exceeded her duties to make sure a patient remained safe from him or her self. I was confused about her references to her attraction to other doctors and her brazen efforts to have sex with male doctors at the hospital. 

But what drew me in were the intense stories she tells of other people's madness. Stories of people who lose grasp of reality due to severe circumstances or childhood abuse are disheartening and frightening. We don't know what will put us over the edge and, possibly, into the hospital. On this subject, Holland writes, 

There is a diaphanous membrane between sane and insane. It is the flimsiest of barriers, and because any one of us can break through at any given time, it scares all of us. We all lie somewhere on the spectrum, and our position can shift gradually or suddenly. There is no predicting which of us will be afflicted with dementia or schizophrenia, who will become incapacitated with depression or panic attacks, or become suicidal, manic, or addicted. None of these states of mind are uncommon, and all of us have friends and family who are suffering with some degree of psychiatric illness.
— Holland, 292

Despite a few reservations, I truly applaud Dr. Holland for sharing her personal journey, as well as the experiences of so many psychiatric patients, with the world. By revealing all these stories, she helps to diminish the stigma that some people feel for having or seeking treatment for mental illness. 

Three Crazy Books

A few weeks ago, I went to see Dr. Julie Holland talk about her most recent book, Moody Bitches, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (I discovered her thanks to her February NY Times piece.) In a room almost entirely full of women, Holland spoke about her journey to the realization that many more women than men take antidepressants. She argued that the fact that 1 in 4 women take this class of medication reveals something deeper, something sinister even, about society's values, and especially about workplace norms. Because my friend Elissa is going to read the hard copy and then pass it along to me, and because I wanted to know more about this lady right away, I looked online and found that she had written a book a few years ago about about her tenure as a psychiatrist at the Bellevue Psych ER. Of course I was going to read this. 

Over the weekend, I finished Belzhar, a YA (young adult) book by Meg Wolitzer, author of, most recently, The Interestings. In Belzhar, the young protagonist Jam suffers from depression after her boyfriend Reeve dies mysteriously. Sent by her parents to a boarding school for "emotionally fragile" teens, Jam struggles to find the will to recover her earlier self. I don't usually enjoy YA books, but this one felt especially deep and genuine. Near the end of the book, Jam reflects: 

Words matter. This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.

Today, as I was poring over Holland's earlier book, Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift, it occured to me that there was a theme in the books I'd read recently: craziness. That's not the PC term, of course, but rather the sensation or the feeling one has when one's mind decides to work against oneself. As I began to write this post, I looked back to the "finished" folder on my Kindle to see if there was anything else I should include. Sure enough, Irvin Yalom's 1989 book, Love's Executioner, topped the list. He chronicles his experiences with a variety of patients, struggling to figure out the most effective way to help each one. 

Why is it so fascinating to read about other people's mental struggles? Why is it so enticing to watch other people waffle between sanity and psychosis? Why do we want to know what psychiatrists and therapists really think? 

Well, why wouldn't we? They're the experts on thinking and feeling, so of course we want to know what they think of other people. It's a shortcut to our own thoughts and feelings. It's like gossip, but deep. And true. Also, It's much easier, much less intense, to inhabit someone else's mind for a little and learn something than to dwell in your own experiences. Feeling grief vicariously seems immensely preferable to feeling it firsthand.

These books provide, in their own way--Holland's through personal narratives of a Psych ER, Wolitzer's through first-person fictional chronicle of a girl's depression, and Yalom's through a psychotherapist's interactions with 10 patients over several years--an immersion into emotions that can seem too oppressive, too uncomfortable, or too frightening to abide with on our own. I heartily recommend all three.