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No. 8 - Grafting
In Which I Recommend Four Podcasts and a Blog
March 30th, 2022. The day I listened to my first podcast. I remember it clearly, because a) I received an e-mail from A24, the film studio responsible for many of my favourite films, about a new episode of their podcast, featuring Kogonada (a film director) and Michelle Zauner (frontman of Japanese Breakfast and author of the recent bestselling memoir Crying in H-Mart), and b) I was on holiday.
There’s lots to say about that holiday.
In September 2020, with a piece of paper certifying I’d graduated from the University of Bucharest in hand (I say piece of paper, because even my diploma wasn’t out yet), I applied to take the Romanian Bar examination. My plan was to become a junior lawyer at one of the country’s top law firms, for which I’d interned in my third year of law school. But after a final semester of improvised e-learning implemented by staff way out of their depth, I was underprepared, demotivated, and chronically weary. I failed the exam.
I couldn’t retake it for another year, so I moved back in with my parents and started reviewing all material again, using a more efficient learning strategy. I felt things clicking where they never had before. When September 2021 rolled around, I felt ready. But this time things were a tad more complicated.
In addition to sitting for the bar exam (the gateway to becoming an attorney), I had decided to apply for the National Institute of Magistracy as well, so that I could become a judge or a prosecutor. I passed the bar exam, and I had two weeks to prepare for this other one. I already possessed most of the information, but a few areas could still be ironed out. The problem: I had zero energy and motivation left.
Getting admitted to the Bar meant I was finally able to get a good job in the legal field. It meant that the previous year—the year I spent living with my parents and studying my butt off, with no guarantees about my future and two deadlines looming on the horizon like a pair of teasing, cackling hyenas—had not been for naught. I needed real work, not another exam. As soon as I could, I found myself a job.
Long story short, the magistracy exam procedure lasted for six more months and culminated in an interview. I sat for the interview in March 2022, after half a year of juggling work as an attorney and free time spent stressing out about that same interview. I had scarce time for reading, working out, or even sleeping. There was no place left in my life for rest.
At the end of March, I quit my job. I’d been admitted to the Institute. I should have been thrilled, right?
What you need to understand is that I was on the lip of burn-out. I had done nothing but study for the past two years. And recently, between demanding work and final preparations for the most difficult legal exam in the country, my reserves were all but squeezed up. It sucks when your entire future hangs upon a single exam you can only retake once a year, one which you’d better retake as many times as you need to, lest your dream job stay locked to you forever. Many of my peers feel the same way. The pressure is immense, and there are no guarantees you’ll ever be successful. Some people pass these exams on a first try, while others give up after a tenth.
This was my state of mind when, at the end of March 2022, I found myself on holiday.
Since I wasn’t working anymore, I went to back to my parents in Constanța to await the commencement of the courses at the Institute. The morning I got the e-mail from A24, I was fiddling with a writing project in my old bedroom, the glare of the laptop’s screen the only light in the room because pulling open the bulky curtains would mean expending energy I did not have to spare. I’d heard of Michelle Zauner, and Kogonada’s name sounded cool. I pressed play and settled in my chair.
What followed was one of the most thoughtful conversations I’d ever heard. Michelle and Kogonada were vibrant and passionate, and they talked about all kinds of things, from early career mishaps to family memories to their experiences as children of Asian immigrants.
At one point, discussing his latest movie After Yang, Kogonada explained the concept of grafting. It’s when a branch of one tree is taped to another tree, so that in time, they fuse together and become one. In the film, a couple played by Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith have adopted a daughter of Asian descent, and Yang, the family’s android companion, explains to her that, just like the branch that has become a part of a different tree, so has she become a part of her new family. At the same time, he tells her, “you should know that both trees are important. Not just this one, but the one from this branch too.”
In many ways, this interview changed the way I look at life. It made me bolder in my creative pursuits and, I suppose, a little bit more human. It gave me a boost of hope, just when I needed it most.
I’ve since learned that this is what the best podcasts do. Podcasts like The Left Ear, Revisionist History, and Heavyweight. Like TED-Ed videos, podcasts are fountains of information, but they are also so much more than that. In an egocentric world where people learn to equate likes and shares with love and self-worth, podcasts present a different option. Instead of focusing on how we are perceived by other people, we can choose to turn our attention to them. Podcasts allow us to spend some precious time outside of ourselves, listening to real people tell their own funny, sad, brave, melancholy, awkward, uplifting stories, without the professionally-fake filters of social media.
For Part One of today’s issue, I’ve selected four of my absolute favourite podcasts which I want to recommend to you. They are of wildly different genres, but all are very worth your time. Listen with an open mind and I think you’ll be rewarded.
In Part Two, I’ll tell you about an awesome writing workshop I attended, and how it helped me. Spoiler alert: it featuresof .
Part One: Four Podcasts
1. Everything is Alive (Radiotopia)
Oh, Everything is Alive. This one might be my favourite audio show in existence. It’s an unscripted interview podcast in which host Ian Chillag talks to… things. I know, I know; bear with me please. Here’s a description from the show’s official website:
Everything is Alive is an interview show in which all subjects are inanimate objects. In each episode, a different thing tells us its life story — and everything it says is true.
There’s simply no accurate way to describe the brilliance of this show. The premise is steeped in silliness, but the show goes deep into it. The characters all have their own complex backstories, and they speak from the heart about issues relevant to their daily existence. Each episode features a different object, from a can of coke to a trio of Matryoshka dolls to a bar of soap to a pregnancy test. And when we do meet an object for the second time, it might be in a different form (take Chioke, a grain of sand, who by the time we see him again has become a pane of glass).
Listen if: you want to learn how it feels to be sat on, consumed, or a chair in a comedy club with comedic aspirations of your own.
Where to start: The creators recommend the beginning, but if you get off on breaking rules you can start with Sean, Subway Seat or Emmy, Pregnancy Test.
2. Dead Eyes (Headgum)
I would describe Dead Eyes as an investigative comedy podcast. It’s about this middle-aged actor, Connor Ratliff, who back in 2000 auditioned for the role of Private Zielinski in Episode 5 of HBO's Band of Brothers. He thought he’d booked the role, when, out of nowhere, his agent called him and said (I’m paraphrasing): “You need to get down here fast. Tom’s having second thoughts. He thinks you have dead eyes.”
Who was “Tom”? It was Academy Award recipient Tom Hanks, who served as director for Episode 5. After a quick reaudition, Tom, “America’s sweetheart” and “the nicest man in Hollywood” (quotes extracted ad litteram from the show), fired Connor.
What did Connor do? For a while, nothing. But at one point two decades or so later, something clicked, and he got the idea for this podcast. Which is:
A quest to solve a very stupid mystery that has haunted comedian Connor Ratliff for two decades: Why Tom Hanks fired him from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series, Band Of Brothers.
Over the course of three seasons, Connor talks to fellow actors, directors, and other folk in the movie industry to try to figure out what it means to have “dead eyes”, and why it would be enough to fire someone from a role that only has a couple of lines.
Listen if: you watched Band of Brothers and don’t remember who Private Zielinski is.
Also listen if: you didn’t watch Band of Brothers and don’t care who Private Zielinski is.
Where to start: Dead Eyes is a serialised story, so starting at the beginning makes sense. But you do you.
3. Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso (Pushkin Industries)
Simply put, Talk Easy is an interview show. But a cast of some of the most high-profile writers, musicians and Hollywood stars, along with host Sam Fragoso’s cappuccino-smooth radio voice and perspicacious questions, make it a very special show indeed. Some of my favourite episodes featured Joyce Carol Oates, Willem Dafoe, Jon Bernthal and Ocean Vuong. But there are so many amazing episodes I’ve yet to listen to and I’m geeking out just looking through this list of names:
George Saunders. Pedro Pascal. Werner Herzog. Margaret Atwood. Anne Lamott. Noam Chomsky. Fran Leibowitz. Matthew McConaughey. Sean Kingston. Malcolm Gladwell. Elizabeth Gilbert. Edward Norton. Ron Pearlman. Vincent D’Onofrio. Viggo Mortensen. Paul Dano. Kogonada. Willem Dafoe. Sam’s mom and dad. Etc.
Listen for: an eclectic collection of intimate conversations with a motley crew of luminaries, wherein fancy words are sometimes used.
Where to start: Look at the list above. That should give you plenty of options.
4. Wolf and Owl (Shiny Ranga / Keep It Light Media)
This one’s a recent addition to my library. It’s a show about nothing in particular. Really, nothing? Well, in the words of its creators:
Comedians Tom Davis (The Wolf) and Romesh Ranganathan (The Owl) shoot the breeze for an hour a week because they couldn’t work out a format. They also take on listener problems if they remember to ask for them before they record. Not enough podcasts are just people talking with no real purpose.
This sums it up pretty nicely. Wolf and Owl is just two sweet, sweet souls having a great time for an hour each week. Things I learned from listening to this podcast:
- If you keep a Christmas tree too long, it starts to smell of piss
- Crispy seaweed (a British Chinese takeout classic) is actually crispy cabbage
- It’s not O.K. for your massage therapist to straddle your butt
Listen if: you want to know what to do when you have to DJ at your son’s wedding party.
Where to start: Wherever you want. Sky’s the limit, my G.
Part Two: Just Enough Coaching
A little while ago, I discovered a blog called Just Enough to Get Me in Trouble. I found it randomly, and its description drew me in. The author promised short, memoir-style essays “that are personal, vulnerable, and sometimes funny.”
Hmm, I thought, that sounds awfully similar to what I’m aiming for on my blog. As it turned out, it is, but also isn’t.
While we write in the same genre, we’ve lived completely different lives, and what sets Lyle McKeany’s work apart is that he writes from, and about, his own experience. In a way unique to him, Lyle writes about being a father, a husband , a son, and an artist. His short essays are filled with heart, and his insights are piercing and resonant.
Because I love his blog, I wrote him an e-mail to tell him that, and also to request some tips on how I could improve my own writing. In return, he came with a proposition of his own.
What if we did a couple of free coaching sessions? We could do a more in-depth analysis of my writing and he could get some practice for a new coaching project he was trying out. It would be win-win. I agreed, and we set a time and date.
But as I settled in my chair waiting for the Zoom call to begin, I found myself growing nervous. It’s always hard sharing your writing with a stranger, especially when you’re sending it specifically to be dissected.
I had nothing to worry about. Lyle was calm and respectful. We talked past the allotted hour each time, and he gave me simple, powerful advice which really stuck with me. For example, when he pointed it out, I realized my essays could use stronger beginnings.
Issue No. 7 is partly the result of my collaboration with Lyle. He provided honest feedback, and did so really quickly. I’m very proud of the way it came out.
You can read more about Lyle’s coaching project here.
For a taste of Lyle’s writing, I’m linking one of his most popular pieces. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will tell you it’s a gut punch.
Whew. This issue got way longer than intended. I think it’s time we wrap it up.
I gave you a bunch of recommendations, so get to it, Practitioners! And thanks a bunch for your sustained attention! As always, if you liked the issue, don’t forget to click on the 🫀 button below👇🏼.
P.S. Before you go, quick question:
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