stop and go from the tunnel to the cemetery

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007
some basic facts:
What: an evening with Ira Glass (not really a reading, not really an interview)

When: October 7, 2007

Where: Oregon Convention Center

Why: Ira's reasons: promoting his book The New Kings of Non-Fiction, which was for the benefit of the 826 store in Chicago (see also: 826 in SF (pirate store!) 826 in Brooklyn (super hero supply store!) both actually fronts for literacy programs. I love that they exist with that veneer of a secret life; it's like money laundering for the mob. On the one hand, how sad is it that we live in a society where it's necessary to have a legitimate front for the nefarious business of LITERACY for CHILDREN? On the other hand, a super hero supply store sounds a lot more fun than after school tutoring, you know? Ooh -- check it out! there's an 826 in Seattle, Michigan and Los Angeles, too! We don't have one here in Portland, but we do have Community of Writers which has a similar mission (and hosts Wordstock, which is FINALLY happening in November).

OPB's reasons: he's a big draw and they sold a lot of tickets. So many that they had to move from their original meeting place of a mini-mega church to a ballroom in the convention center.

My reasons: Blondie invited me as a thank you for helping her paint the basement apartment in her house. We'd also seen Ira Glass together before, so it was a tradition.

Smugness Factor of a Portland Audience of Public Radio Supporters: very high. The dirty (but eco-friendly) little secret of a lovely and livable progressive city such as Portland is that people are generally pretty pleased with themselves. ESPECIALLY, it turns out, if they don't watch much television. (I say this with love and my own set of pet smug topics. ::cough::publiclibrary::cough::.)


We found seats pretty close up and on the aisle. Blondie is a film festival veteran and has developed effective strategies for seating, egress and avoiding butt numbness. I wish I could develop an effective strategy for deflecting people with too much perfume from sitting next to me. (why would you want to smell like you fell in a vat of baby powder and lysol??? WHY?!)

The introducer guy came out to do his thing. He mentioned that Ira Glass (host and creator of This American Life) was worried about what he was going to do with all his material on gay sex and atheists since we were no longer meeting in a church. (it was funny, I swear.) He introduced Glass and April Baer (local morning radio host), who was interviewing Glass for this event. Baer was in Work Mode from the start -- she had her questions on cards and her voice was Radio Ready, even though she was not being broadcast. Glass was much more natural and conversational, dragging her off on oddball tangents and diversions. She would try to steer the conversation back to her talking points, but he wasn't having it. He remained gracious and charming, but not tractable. She was game, but there was an underlying quality of "just answer the #$%% question" and "why won't you do what I want you to do?"

I don't think they had very good chemistry. It was kind of weird -- I couldn't tell if it was because she admired him (which she admitted early on) and was nervous or was tired (she normally goes to bed at 7pm), or if it was some philosophical divide, but they seemed to be about a half a click off with each other. She made a joke somewhere along the way about Vermont and Oregon being rivals, which lead to some hilariously bizarre Vermont-baiting comments in the question and answer session. (Vermont, you're jake with me!) He kept returning to this which did not seem to thrill her. She, in turn, poked a sore spot by bringing up the piece The Onion did about This American Life. She said "you must feel like you've made it now!" and he replied that he actually found it very hurtful since his intention with the show is not irony, but utter sincerity; that theirs is a ministry of love.

He talked about how TAL was an incredibly hard sell at first. "We run a good business," but executives thought the TAL concept was ridiculous, that "it was goony to be talking to normal people." They take a great deal of pride in how effective they are during pledge weeks (their moneymaking pledge drives were what got many stations to pick them up in the first place). The goonier the idea, the more effective he wants the business end to be.

It's been long enough now that I can't really remember in what order anything happened -- I didn't expect to take notes so I had to scribble them on a folded piece of paper and... well, anyway. The following all happened, although it's paraphrased and out of order.

Shortly after she tried to rein him in and get him talking about the book, he pulled a card off the table and said "let's see what it is that you say every day." He read a card that said "it's stop and go from the tunnel to the cemetery," which describes a bit of traffic reporting on a particularly gnarly bit of freeway. He said "this is poetry! This is the story of our lives -- when you think about it, our whole existence is stop and go from the tunnel to the cemetery." I thought this was pretty freaking moving and profound, but Baer launched into a literal explanation of how bad traffic can be on that stretch of road. (Again, maybe she was tired, maybe she thought he was making fun of her or maybe she just did not think it was freaking moving or profound.)

A large portion of the evening's conversation was about the expansion of TAL to television and Showtime. It was obvious that a lot of people (Baer included) thought this was a sort of betrayal of the radio show. Of radio itself. Glass sees it differently, obviously. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol directed at television from the audience. Glass proclaimed "we are living in a golden age of television!" (paraphrase) "Like the 40's were a golden age of the automobile, when there were 50 different cars and most of them were really dangerous and you never knew when one would blow up." Baer said she'd take his word for it, and he said "Sister, you don't have to take my word for it. The technology exists so that you might experience it yourself!" She said something about going to bed at 7pm every night (she works early), but he wasn't buying it. "Tivo is your friend." Anyway, he particularly mentioned the glory of Mad Men and how lucky we all were to be living in a time when the Colbert Report and The Daily Show are on every night. He went on to defend the work that they're doing on the Showtime verison of TAL, but since I haven't seen it and it's been almost a month since this event, I don't remember the details. (except that they have total creative freedom, and that he doesn't think it's a sell out.)

The question and answer session was agonizing, as they almost always are -- having a skilled person on the answering end of the microphone can make all the difference. Glass took the long rambly meanderthons, the hurt radio feelings, the inarticulate groupies and the shameless self-promoters and managed to answer their microphone utterances with helpful coherent creative advice! I know a lot of this is ground that he's covered in other interviews, but I thought it was really good, so here's the scribbly note version.

On being creative: start making the stuff you want to make as soon as you can. You need to create a body of work. Push yourself through the years where you make bad stuff to find your voice. Your taste is good enough that you can tell it's crap, which is discouraging, but keep working! Have faith. At first you will spend at least half of your time coming up with something to work on. Have a weekly deadline if you can. He then told a story about how when he was coming up in radio and doing work for other people, his goal was always to give the producer what they asked for, but to have at least one little moment in there that was his. Something he was proud of, something that represented his voice and taste and vision. I thought this was a really great concept, especially since all or nothing thinking is so easy to fall into. Oh! I almost forgot -- he said to always have your eyes and ears open for things that inspire you. He then told a story about a friend (can't remember who) who stumbled across the conundrum of why some trees have red leaves in the fall. Apparently this is a mystery of botany! (I LOVE THIS) There is no definitive biological reason for red leaves; in fact, it is an energy drain for the tree to make them red. If we don't know for sure why trees make their leaves red (just red -- yellow and orange have explanations), then how can we think we know anything? Anyway, his friend spotted this puzzle in an obituary for a botanist, and a new obsession was born.

To sum up: Keep working. Have faith! Listen to the radio. Enjoy the golden age of non-fiction and television. Look for the poetry in your everyday life.
5 comments on "stop and go from the tunnel to the cemetery"
  1. I love Ira Glass. I also love your comments about the people of Portland being so damned smug and self-congratulatory. No TV? No thanks I say. PBS is aight but I can only take so much history and Sesame Street before I go crazy. I should also say that the postman brought me a lovely Halloween card yesterday. It really was bomb diggity. Do people say that anymore? Did they ever?

  2. Yeah, the no TV people were INTERESTING. I mean, I don't care what people do or don't do, generally, but many were making such cruel remarks toward those who DO enjoy tv (as if it isn't a perfectly glorious and cromulent example of the venerable art of storytelling) that I wanted to pound them with something. Maybe a tv. I think it's great (not that anyone needs my permission) if someone would rather weld wings on their unicycle than watch tv, but I don't think being so contemptuous of the entire broad stripe of tv-watching humanity is really very progressive, to be honest. It's reactive and stupid.

    I'm so glad the card got there in time, and even more glad that it is BBD 'bomb diggity' certified!

  3. Are you dressing up this year? Last years costume was so great, I wonder how you could top it.

  4. ha ha! Do I detect sarcasm over this here internet device? I can barely remember what I wore last year! (although in my mind it WAS awesome, of course.)

    I'm not doing anything Halloweenish this year, which is okay. I did buy some candy on the freak chance there are trick or treaters. What about you?

  5. Nothing special. Watching a movie called License To Wed starring your dream husband Robin Williams. I am sure it will not be so wonderful but I am all for mindless entertainment at this moment, and I will try to stay awake for Dirty Sexy Money. I really do enjoy it. But I have been falling asleep around 10:30 so we will see if I can keep my toothpicks from breaking. And we will not have trick or treaters so I did not buy candy because I knew I would eat all of it as Erich is not so interested in candy bars, the FREAK!!!


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