Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NerdFest 9000

I had a moment of startling self-realization yesterday when it struck me that I listen to (on average) probably about 10 hours of podcasts per week. Ten hours?! That's ten hours that I'm not actively engaged in communicating with other people, or writing, or exercising, or working, for that matter. I feel less guilty when I consider that the first five are usually my early-morning-coffee hours before leaving the house to bike to work Monday through Friday. But the other five? Generally, those are my cooking hours, or my BART- and MUNI-riding hours, the occasional lunch break or stroll over Bernal Hill.

I start feeling better when I realize how supremely QUALITY these shows are, and even though I'm too broke to actively support any of them (at this point in time!), I do listen to them obsessively. I can't help it. These are my stories, my soap operas, the intellectual conversations I have with my coffee mug or the train station. And, in the tradition of my favorite podcast nerd-celebrities, I am going to make a TOP 10 list of my favorites and post them here:

1. This American Life

Okay, so this is a cult classic now, but I have been a loyal fan of Ira Glass and his band of microphone-wielding journalists since 1997, when I inherited an 8-track tape of the show "Music Lessons." This show was actually taped live in San Francisco, and featured David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott, three writers that I later saw speak at UCSB. The radio show has just gotten better with the years, and I'll grudgingly admit that its new television series is quite good too. Not the same, but also good.

2. Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me

Another NPR classic, this weekly news quiz show offers some of the best and most current satire out there. This captures my love for old-timey radio shows a la Prairie Home Companion, although it's punchier, more progressive, and not quite so Lutheran. I had the opportunity to see a live taping of Wait, Wait at UC Berkeley last spring, and it was even funnier in person. There's nothing quite like Peter Sagal making penis jokes in between interviewing prominent senators.

3. Radio Lab

This is THE BEST RADIO SHOW EVER PRODUCED, hands down. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich literally make science the coolest thing in the world. They only produce about 12 shows a year, but every show is fascinating, hilarious, poignant, dutifully researched, and truly, amazingly original. My physicist friend Melina turned me on to them, and these babies are staying on my laptop until it bites its digital dust.

4. Sound Opinions

Think Chuck Klosterman meets Carl Kasell meets MTV for adults. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot host this great weekly podcast where they interview contemporary musicians of all genres, deconstruct musical movements such as disco, punk, and heavy metal, and break down the legal side of the music industry. I've become addicted to music criticism thanks to them, and find that this is podcast in particular is my favorite one to work out to, maybe because it makes me think and plays good music at the same time. They recommend music based on a "Buy It, Burn It, Trash It" scale which is at times hilarious. The show itself is Buy It all the way.

5. The Sound of Young America

Jesse Thorn hosts this hip and thoughtful podcast, which he updates regularly on his awesome blog, This guy is my hero. He has interviewed all of the people I have ever wanted to meet (Janeane Garafalo, Gift of Gab, Neil Gaiman, Mike Birbiglia, Louis C.K., Ira Glass, and so so many more), and asks really thought-provoking and never patronizing questions. Perhaps my favorite part about him (aside from the fact that he's crazy talented) is that he started this show as a student at UC Santa Cruz, and his nonprofit podcast and radio empire has just multiplied since then. He also co-hosts Jordan, Jesse, Go!, which is the goofier, more casual side to Young America. A Plus to Jesse Thorn and his cronies for putting together a really fabulous DIY network.

6. The Moth

The Moth is a storytelling and open mic series that is hosted in New York City and Los Angeles. These stories are told by comedians, actors, writers, and really anyone with a fifteen-minute story who comes to the stage. The shows are organized by theme (a.k.a. "Loss," or "Animals," etc.), and are always insightful. Some of the best recordings I've ever heard were only about ten minutes long, from people I'd never heard of, but their words stayed with me. I heard a rumor that the Moth will be starting an hour-long public radio show soon, and I can't wait.

7. New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts this monthly podcast which features a prominent writer reading his or her favorite story. The genres and styles of the stories vary greatly, as do the readers themselves, but these are the podcasts that remind me why I was a literature major, and what I could look forward to, if I ever achieve any success as a writer. The discussions before and after are really interesting, too. I first heard of Junot Diaz through a reading of one of his stories by Edwidge Danticat, and was so thrilled to find a writer who captures where I'm at right now. A great show.

8. Selected Shorts

Another great radio show out of WNYC--this one showcases live recordings of literary readings at New York City's Symphony Space. Isaiah Sheffer helps produce these evenings of short story brilliance, selects actors to perform the stories, and sometimes interviews performers and writers afterward. This is one of the shows that inspires me as a writer and reader, and sharpens my vocabulary as well. Would be a fun place to work...although I'd work for any of these podcasts for free!

9. To the Best of Our Knowledge

This Wisconsin-based PRI show tackles topics of many natures--anything from Military Identity in America to Atheism and its Critics. One of the best, most poignant radio stories I've ever heard was about how to parent transgender children. This radio could be the one thing that convinced me to move to Madison, one day.

10. NPR Live in Concert

For those broke music nerds who can't afford to see their favorite bands in concert, but do have the two hours to burn en route to and from work, this is the perfect podcast. I've used this podcast to check out bands whose work I'm not familiar with, but whose live performances seem absolutely transformative. There are a few concerts whose sets I've practically memorized--Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, the Ting Tings, Mates of State. Now this is a job I would love to have: recording and meeting all these bands. Sweet.

I thought I was exaggerating when I said ten hours of podcasts per week, but really that might be a conservative estimate. Maybe this is what happens when you grow up on PBS and NPR: maybe you have nerdy cravings for people with soothing voices deconstructing science or critiquing an old John Cheever story. Regardless, I love these podcasts in part because they make that part of the day mine, all mine, whether I am brushing my hair before work or walking up the hill home.

Oh, it feels good to be nerdy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Comedy with an Edge

I am finally feeling San Franciscan, now that I have gotten the chance to see a live show at Cobb's Comedy Club. Ryan, Tiff and I got tickets last minute to see Wyatt Cenac, a.k.a. Correspondent to the Daily Show.

It's only recently that I've taken a sincere interest in stand-up comedy, although I've always been a huge fan of Eddie Izzard, Mitch Hedberg and Mike Birbiglia. I'd heard of Wyatt Cenac, but knew as much about him as I did the other two performers. Cenac walked onstage in military green and a smart little cap. I've heard him referred to on the Daily Show as its "Senior Black Correspondent," and his ironic coverages of the Obama campaign interspersed over the past several months have spiced up the show. On Friday, my favorite bit was his brief take on gay marriage:

"When I was growing up, my uncle told me that there was nobody more powerful than a white man. So, wouldn't TWO white men be simply unstoppable?"

He did have one bit on dating a Jewish girl that left a weird taste in my mouth:

I should mention that this followed up a particularly funny bit about how sad it is that all the words that begin with the letter N can never lay claim as "the N-word," save the racial slur. I should also mention that the reason I felt weird about the Jewish-American-Princess bit is that it (at times) rings true. I am proud to say that I have never been that girl, nor was the term "JAP" ever part of my vocabulary. However, I have heard the term being used more than once, with a hint of pride, and it made me a bit sick to my stomach.

The summer I turned 16, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend 6 weeks in Israel. I had just completed a Confirmation class through the local synagogue, and qualified for a modest scholarship to travel with a Jewish youth organization for the summer. It was, without comparison, the best summer I've ever had, partially because it triggered a series of personal epiphanies. One of these was the discovery of the word "Jap," and an intense disgust for the subculture that it brews. The first time I heard it, I was one of about five hundred teenagers backpacking through the Negev Desert. We met a few Israelis, and one or two Arab farmers, but for the most part, the land was pristine, lush in an almost Biblical way. And somehow I felt myself separating more and more from the group of girls with whom I was assigned to travel--the ones who complained about dust and applied makeup over mountain streams.

"Oh, I'm such a Jap!" I remember one of them giggling.
"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked her.
"Oh, you know what a Jap is, you silly," said her friend.
"I know what I think it is, and it's not a good thing," I said.
They both sighed. "Jewish American Princess! Hello!" And then they laughed, kept walking.

Fast forward almost ten years, and I felt a slight chill during Cenac's performance. He's right about many things, and that's why it's important to hear it as comedy. For some reason, hearing the same bit by a white comedian would feel anti-Semitic somehow, but knowing that he himself finds himself representing a minority, whether or not he likes it, makes it better somehow. More real, more meaty, and funnier all around.

One thing's for sure, though: I'm nobody's princess, thank you very much.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Joys of Science

This is an underwater perspective of the California Academy of Sciences, perhaps the greatest interactive science museum on Earth. Or, at the very least, in San Francisco. My friend Tiff and I made our first visit to the recently renovated center in Golden Gate Park today, and spent the better part of the day there.

First stop was the Rainforests of the World exhibit, a four-story glass globe that has visitors wandering through the layers of a tropical climate. There were butterflies everywhere, and by butterflies, I mean crazy flits of orange, blue and green that would land on your nose if you weren't careful. There were little yellow birds and tiny tree frogs hidden along the way like Easter eggs. For a few short hours I remembered the rush of enthusiasm that I used to feel for the Sacramento Zoo or the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Science was cool, and you could touch it.

It was a surprisingly sunny afternoon, so our jaunt to the Living Roof was especially nice. I felt a like a Hobbit, or maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder when she describes the house at Plum Creek. From our vantage point we could see the de Young museum, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Shakespeare Garden. We were surrounded in a sea of little purple flowers and circular windows popping out of domes.

As cool as the California Academy of Sciences was, the best part of our day in the park was actually witnessing the California Outdoor Rollerskating Association's tribute to Michael Jackson. There is literally nothing cooler than seeing people in glittery hot pants do the zombie dance on skates.

How to Coach Soccer Without Being Good at It

This is my soccer team. Or rather, this was my soccer team. Friday was my last big soccer game with the international students at Kaplan Aspect, the English language school where I've been working the past two years. In this photo, we represent the following countries: Russia, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Korea, Brazil, Kazakhstan, France, Switzerland, South Africa, and the U.S. It was a beautiful day at Golden Gate Park, and for once we had the whole field to ourselves.

I started a soccer club at Kaplan about a year ago, when our Activities and Student Services Manager asked me if I could help her out by leading weekly and monthly activities. The group has alternately shrunk and expanded as each subsequent group of students has come and gone; first I had a wave of serious players who wanted to help me rent out Balboa Park, then there were the chill Japanese guys with the fanciest footwork I'd ever seen, and even, when I was the lucky, the occasional girl. For months all we had was a single soccer ball, and then when my friend Itaru left for Japan, he gave me another one. Eventually I bought a pump, and my colleague surprised me for Christmas with a set of bright orange cones.

We've wandered around different parts of the Park--usually Hippie Hill, near Haight St., or behind the baseball field at 7th and Lincoln. Sometimes I could convince them to ride the 5 bus out to Marx Meadows, which added ten minutes to our public transit journey, but afforded us longer, sunnier fields. Once we got kicked off the Polo fields, and once we had to settle for a small patch of land between bramble bushes.

The most amazing thing about soccer is that no matter who came, and how they identified with the sport, once we started the game, everyone relaxed. Those who claimed to be "too good" for our squirrel-studded fields and chastised me for playing without shin guards eventually forgot their complaints and focused on the game. Those who had never played before, and insisted that they had only come to take photos, eventually found themselves gravitating from the sidelines to the field. This last game I felt especially proud because I had finally gotten a Korean girl to play, and she was fantastic.

There are few things more universal than sports, and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, there are few things more gratifying than knowing you've somehow managed to bring an entire community of English-language-learners together. Huzzah.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Falling In --

Every now and then I have one of those absolutely perfect weekends. You know the kind: when you can stay up as late as you feel, and wake up whenever the light hits you right. When you are active and feel all the cells buzzing around inside you with the same electricity as that summer pulse that fills the air. When the moon is just nearly full, and you are just nearly infatuated with it all, or at the very least, the person laying next to you on the lawn. That was the kind of weekend I had.

It helped that it was the Fourth of July, and that Friday was a day off work, and that the Sacramento River was clean and clear just past noon. There are little clusters of swallow nests that bead the underside of the Knights Landing bridge, and they were all absent, empty. Instead, the birds filled the air, swooping in even arcs above us as we passed the fishermen with their lines cutting the water fresh.

It was hot, but not hazy, and the air hummed with cicadas and grasshoppers. Waterskiing is an exercise in defeating gravity. My favorite feeling is when the water is glassy smooth, and while speeding above the water, you can lean over and dip your fingers down into the spray. On days like Friday, clear water makes for a perfect mirror image.

Saturday was just as nice, between the bustling farmer's market and the bicycle races circling downtown Davis. It reminded me of the Triplets of Belleville, watching all these muscled men and women stream by in dizzying pelatons. Ryan and I drove back to San Francisco in time for the fireworks show down by Pier 39. We took the J Church MUNI downtown -- my favorite train, the one that reminds me of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood in the way it snakes over and through Dolores Park.

The Wharf was filled with tourists, vendors selling flashing wands and teenagers barely hiding their bags of alcohol. We wandered out onto the edge of the dock, the smell of churros and bacon-wrapped hot dogs overpowering the wafts of gunpowder. It was, by all means, an extraordinary evening. There were actually two dueling sets of fireworks: one above Pier 39, near the water, and one on the other side of Coit Tower, which we could barely make out on the other side of Telegraph Hill. For every bright explosion, we saw its cousin mirrored in the sky just beyond the hill.

The spirit of the Fourth was no less strong today. I woke up to the sound of firecrackers down the street. We biked down to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform "Too Big to Fail" at Dolores Park. The actors and musicians had set up a wooden stage adjacent to the tennis courts, and the sunlight did indeed finally peek through the mid-afternoon fog. The entire play seemed like the unlikely love child of NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" news quiz and any kid-friendly PBS show. Basically, the writers pared down the 2008 economic meltdown to a greedy frenzy for credit, which was the best explanation of our current market that I've heard. That, and it involved musical numbers and a woman dressed as a huge shark.

And now, somehow, it's Sunday evening, and the spell of summer is beginning to lift. Work again tomorrow. Ryan is back home. The fog has rolled in. Rent due. Grocery shopping. Vacuuming the room, sweeping up remnants of the past few weeks--ticket stubs, photos, programs, postcards from Chile, Greece. I am reminded again of why I must always return to the keyboard: to remember it all, because none of it lasts long.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Un ejercicio de idioma

De vez en cuando, me siento la necesidad de practicar espanol. Hace mucho tiempo que he usado el espanol duante mi vida cotidiana. Oigo el castellano en mi oficina, especialmente durante el verano, cuando tenemos muchos estudiantes hispanohablantes aqui para aprender ingles. Mi capacidad para escuchar no ha cambiado mucho durante los dos anos desde que sali de Espana, porque durante el dia estoy rodeada de espanol. Pero la urgencia de expresar, la habilidad de explicar conceptos, y la gramatica fundamantal--estas cosas me han empeorado (sabes lo que te digo?!) un monton.

Hay dias cuando entran un grupo de espanoles hablando muy rapido en espanol, y siempre asumen que no les entiendo. Ya no he decidido si me satisfecho mas si les respondo directamente en espanol, para que no me digan cosas privadas, o si es mejor esperar unos dias para que intenten hablar conmigo en ingles primero. Ayer, dos mujeres hispanohablantes(parecian espanoles, aunque pueden ser latinoamericanas) pasaron por la escuela para preguntar cosas sobre los programas, y me vieron mirandolas.

"Jo, ves que nos esta viendo?" la primera dijo a la segunda.
"Da igual, porque no nos entiende," la segunda respondio.

Estuve sonriendo cuando me vieron, y casi dije algo en espanol, pero decidi que era mas importante esperar. Recorde la escuela donde trabaje en La Cala de Mijas, en el sur de Espana, y los padres britanicos que siempre asumian que nadie les entendian cuando hablaban en ingles. A veces decian cosas terribles a los camareros, los baristas o los camioneros, y cada vez me sentia una verguenza universal. La cortesia debe ser algo universal, internacional, sin frontera, si quieres. Pero la realidad es que todo el mundo hace el mismo error: todo el mundo vive en su propio mundo pequeno, donde las unicas fronteras son los que construye si misma para protegerse de la ignorancia de otros. Ironico, no, como queremos evitar la ignorancia, pero es casi imposible ver la ignorancia en que ya vivimos?

Bueno, al final, no dije nada, pero he creado una nueva manera de responder a los estudiantes que me hablan en espanol. Cuando les veo hablando en la escuela, y cuando ya lo se que realmente hablan y entienden el ingles, les digo: "Por favor!" y sigo trabajando. Lo hice ayer con un grupito de espanolas, y empezaron a reir, deciendo, "Pero hablas espanol, no?" Sonrie, y segui trabajando.