Holiday Card, 2015

Happy Holidays, friends and lovers! How I’ve missed you. I hope the ups of your 2015 outpaced the downs, and that you didn’t have too many unbearable hangovers. 

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Merry Christmas from this girl, whose sweater is equal parts comfortable and insane.

Let’s catch up. As my (belated) Festivus gift to you I present: a letter full of hot recs!

PODCASTS

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If I had to distill the most important thing I took from 2015, it was Self Care. My life hashtag has been #notimeforscrubs for quite a while now, but I’ve expanded it to include more than just idiots from my dating life, past and future. #notimeforscrubs means no time for toxic friendships, negative self-talk, or events for pure obligation’s sake. It means more time for yoga, chiropractic appointments, and face masks. I started therapy this year, and I tried ear acupuncture. My 2016 resolution is to floss. I’m really trying to get it together. A huge influence for me in this realm has been the Buzzfeed podcast Another Round. Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu make a point to discuss the practicalities of taking care of yourself, and they ask each of their guests (including Hillary GD Clinton!) how they take care of themselves, too. Just as important, they are hilarious, and I wish they were my real-life friends.

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I don’t usually recommend people go back to the beginning of a podcast, unless they’re a freak completist like me. It’s overwhelming and time-consuming. But the best thing about Hello from the Magic Tavern is the fully formed fantasy world Arnie Niekamp, Matt Young, and Adal Rifai are building, and it’s worth it to get in on the ground floor. The backstory: Niekamp is a human who fell through a portal in Chicago to the magical land of Foon. He’s joined every episode by pals Usidore the Wizard (Young) and Chunt the shapeshifting badger (Rifai), and they have a roundtable chat with a local colorful character. Think Dungeons and Dragons meets Professor Blastoff (RIP). The most impressive feat the show pulls off is the continuity between episodes. Even one-off guests readily reference rules of the universe established in previous weeks. Usually fictional podcasts are not my bag, but this hits all the right notes of the most fun improv you’ll ever see except in audio form. Full disclosure: As of this posting, Adal coaches my improv team, but he will likely never read this, so NO I’M NOT SUCKING UP.

Elise mentioned Mystery Show in her summer postcard, but I’d like to reiterate how incredible that show is. Start with the “Belt Buckle” or “Source Code” episodes. Really, anything on the Gimlet podcast network is worth your time, if you’re looking for something new. Reply All is unmissable, too. Honestly, I will listen to anything Gimlet puts out; they’re doing good work.

TV

FX had a stellar year, upping the ante on a bunch of their shows. The Americans, You’re the Worst (yeah, yeah, technically FXX), and Fargo all blew their previous seasons out of the water.

I’ve also continued upon my inadvisable rewatch of original 90210. Unless you unapologetically like bad TV, like some people I know, you have better ways to spend your time.

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What is anyone wearing, ever

MOVIES

Well, what about a little indie gem called The Force Awakens? Truthfully, I’d like to just list it here ten times, but that feels lazy. I’ll just say it was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in literal years, and if you’re not a Star Wars person, I still think you’d like it. But I’m a little too close to the material to know for sure. I could seriously watch BB-8 give a thumbs-up on repeat for five hundred years.

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Spotlight is also great. It’s part procedural, part thriller, and covers the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, as brought to light by The Boston Globe. Though it dramatizes true events, it doesn’t add any extraneous nonsense to make the story more big-screen friendly. It’s just a bunch of 2000s journalists in hideous outfits doing their jobs really well. Pro tip: I spent the whole movie thinking Cardinal Law was some sort of catechism, but it is, in fact, a person’s name. So much for 13 years of Catholic school.

Sisters isn’t getting much love, which is sadly fair. But if you like Tina and Amy at all, their chemistry certainly justifies a rental. I will be plagiarizing many of my future sick burns from the script, including: “I respect your jumpsuit, but not its contents.”

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BOOKS

In October, I successfully completed my Goodreads challenge to read forty books this year and felt a powerful sense of accomplishment, because my self-worth is determined by To Do lists. Unsurprisingly, I have significantly slowed down since then. Currently I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s sad as fuck, guys. But so beautifully written. Now that I’ve finished my challenge, I am savoring the act of reading, instead of blowing through pages to cross another novel off the list.

MUSIC

My new music consumption is pathetic. As I edit this, I am listening to The Head and the Heart’s 2010 self-titled album, which I have heard approximately eleventy-bajillion times already. Sure, I bought Adele’s new album (and tickets to see her in concert, doi), and I have intensely lip-synced to it around my apartment. I like Leon Bridges’ album a whole lot, but usually when I put on Spotify, I head straight for the “Focus” section because I have work to do. I’ve written many jokes to the energizing instrumentals of the “Productive Morning” playlist. (And not always in the morning, either.)

I guess what I’m asking, dear reader, is what music should I be listening to? What were the albums you couldn’t live without this year? No aggressively dissonant music need apply, but I am otherwise open.

I’m trying to try, though. I even bought a record player this year! And my transformation to completely insufferable is now complete! Unfortunately, I had to replace my turntable within a month, and the new one was also non-functioning, so now I have about 15 records with no way to play them. Take pity on me and my virgin copy of Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits.

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Thats it! Merry happy, everybody, and see you in 2016!
Alison

Re: Postcard, Summer 2015

Hi, buddy!

Thanks for your letter. Your summer sounds like it was tremendous. Wish I could have been there, too.

The fugue state that is Chicago summer feels like months ago, instead of merely weeks. With October quickly approaching, we’ve entered the season of Impossible to Dress Yourself Since It Will Be Fifteen Degrees Warmer Later, or ItDYSIWBFDWL, for short. But fall truly is the best time of year. It holds so much promise—even without the beginning of the school year, autumn feels like the perfect time for reinvention and revitalization. Am I a Pilates Person who Reads the News now? Hey, at least for September.

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But let’s go back in time for a moment. Here are some of the things that I was jamming on this summer, about which I may or may not have already texted you.

Podcasts

I wish you had more patience for Beverly Hills, 90210 because Tara and Sarah (#squadgoals) are doing an amazing job recapping every episode on Again With This. You should at least be checking out the accompanying Visual Aids because, you know, comedy gold. I, on the other hand, subscribed to Hulu Plus to watch every second of the ten-season series because, just like Dylan and Brenda, I am going all in on this relationship.

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Co-sign on Death, Sex & Money. I teared up listening to Chaz Ebert’s episode. Love is real! All of Anna Sale’s interviews are handled masterfully—they each feel so honest. It helps, too, that her guests are game to be open books. I loved listening to Jane Fonda, Scott Aukerman with Kulap Vilaysack, Ellen Bustyn, and Joy Williams, too. And all the rest of them. Just go listen, already!

Books

I finally finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, five hundred months later. I appreciated the book more than I enjoyed it, but No Regrets 2015! Now, onto the miniseries…

Everyone should experience Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance via audiobook. Internet, contact me for more details. (Seriously.)

Mindy Kaling’s new book made me laugh out loud in public more than once. She’s a boss.

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TV

As readers of this blog may have noticed due to my sudden decline in coverage, I dropped True Detective like a hot rock. As much fun as I had mocking it, I could not carry on because it was total trash. If any of you out there are holding on senselessly to any shows that have gone off the rails, follow my example and let go. I also gave up on Masters of Sex, and I’m feeling great.

I binged Season One of Empire last month, which was amazing, but no one did batshit as well as UnREAL did this summer. Get on it, everyone. It may have aired on Lifetime, but UnREAL has an FX sensibility.

I already miss Playing House, but thanks to the podcast Womp It Up (a Comedy Bang Bang spinoff) and an iTunes purchase of the show Best Friends Forever, I’ll still have some Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham to keep me warm this winter. As a dude that I met on a dating app texted me the first night we started talking, “Alison, you are definitely crushing on Lena [sic] and Jessica.” The next day he passive aggressively complained when I didn’t respond immediately. Feeling great about my twelve-hour summer fling of 2015!

I still have not finished The Wire. I’ve got a real “slow and steady” thing going. I average about an episode every two weeks, which is the perfect pace for forgetting everything that’s happened so far.

Movies

I just Googled “summer movies 2015” because I had no memory of what I saw this year. Great sign!

I liked Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton, loved Spy, and had my brain exploded by Magic Mike XXL. I’m a different, better person now.

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Music

James Bay (or Bae, if you will) is my new twentysomething-Brit-with-a-guitar crush. I saw him at Outside Lands in San Francisco, and have tickets to see him in Chicago in November. On a related note, there is a RedEye employee in my office who wears a similar round brim hat at his standing desk. My amateur diagnosis is that he’s trying too hard.

Lianne La Havas is a goddess. For Christmas, I’d like her jumpsuits and her casual cool.

I’ve re-signed my lease for the 2015-2016 year, which is a funny feeling. I’ll have at least one more winter and one more summer in Chicago. So much will be different by this time next year—mostly the newly wedded bliss of some of my favorite people, as 2016 is The Year of Weddings. The other changes, however, the changes in my own life, are ones I cannot foresee. And I’m excited for those.

Love,

Alison

P.S. Of course you brought corn on the plane. Of course you did.

Postcard: Summer, 2015

Hello friend:

Summer is perhaps, maybe, sadly…ending. As I write this, we are both returning from adventures that took us far away from home, with new appreciation for our beds, personal space and the English language.

I missed you—which is weird, because we don’t actually live in the same place. We are always apart. But summertime is different. I was out of the country, with limited Wi-Fi. You were in a Californian land of magical thinking, surrounded by lovely loonies who jammed the Golden Gate Park airwaves with Instagrams and Snaps.

dancing guyWe were unplugged.

I’ve been taking long, mulit-phase flights since I was very young, and I believe that there is something perfect and sacred about intercontinental travel. I’m not nearly so high-powered that I must be ever-available by email, and hovering thousands of miles above Earth strikes me as the best possible excuse for staying offline. Airline Internet isn’t strong enough to stream my shows anyway. (I did manage to watch the first three episodes of Playing House, season two on the tarmac.)

This summer vacation—though frustratingly truncated due to grown-up work schedules—I let go of my absolute compulsion to catch up and keep up with everything and everyone. But also, time away made me realize what I miss when it’s gone. Like always having you one text away. Here are all the things I wanted to share in real-time over the past few weeks:

I finally read Erik Larsen’s Dead Wake from cover to cover, and rediscovered a debilitating fear of the open sea. A recurring drowning-while-trapped-underwater nightmare that started when I first saw Titanic came back with full force, and I was like, this is what you get for reading gripping nonfiction about events that precipitated U.S. entry into the first World War, you raging nerd. That guy who plays the captain of the Titanic (and also the creepy possessed king in The Lord of the Rings movies) was there.

I JUST REALIZED that Anna Chlumsky of Veep is grown-up Vada from My Girl!!!!

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I listened to season one of Mystery Show while we drove around the countryside, and I’m pretty sure Starlee Kine is the greatest. I would happily make her voice my ringtone. How does podcast-funding work? Who is paying for Starlee’s gold-star, all-access meet-and-greet ticket to see Britney Spears? Should I just keep texting Starlee and Ira Glass five and ten dollars when they tell me to? Or maybe listen to Startup? I am intrigued by this business model.

I brought corn on the plane. Customs officials were not amused.

Finally watched Page One: Inside The New York Times on the train. Maybe I should read The New York Times more. Maybe I should get my own digital subscription. Maybe my office pays for that, actually…

Did you listen to the “Siblings” episode of Death, Sex and Money? My dad told me stories today about hiking the Himalayas with his brothers. Getting into fights, and then—hours later—peeing into bottles while storms howled outside their tent, and sharing a single sleeping bag for warmth. Sort of similar to rooming with Karoline in San Francisco, yes? Everyone should call their sisters and brothers right now and tell them that they’re the worst, but you love them anyway. [Karoline, return my texts.] There is something incredibly romantic and soothing about Anna Sale’s voice.

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Stop that, Gina Rodriguez. You deserve all the Emmys. I realize I’m 2.5 years behind you on this—Jane The Virgin is popcorn candy delicious funny. The CW: this is the best thing you have done since Veronica Mars.

DON’T WORRY. I traveled thousands of miles to a foreign country, and immediately found a hipster coffee shop that sells homemade granola, chocolate bars with 100% cacao and an adorable barista that I’ll call Fernando. He personally toured me around their chocolate-making operation. I’ve obviously returned every morning since.

Go Set A Watchman–what Roxane Gay said.

So, listen. I promise to be in touch now that I’m back. I’m working, easing back into my routine and waiting for autumn. Fall is actually my favorite season—a sentiment shared by everyone who has ever lived in (and loved) Chicago. September and October is gorgeous in Chicago. I hope that DC reflects some of that beauty.

Tell me about your summer soon, okay? You’re my fave.

–Elise

Text me.

I have a friend who tells the best First Contact stories. It’s remarkable—complete strangers are drawn to her (I mean, she’s beautiful) and then go out of their way (and possibly their minds) to track her down and text her in the craziest situations.

Here, the guy who hit her car:

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Here, the immensely unethical Verizon Wireless employee, taking advantage in a moment of post-phone recovery weakness:

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I’m so glad he specified “white dress shirt.” Otherwise she might have been confused.

I have great respect for the maker of The First Move. It’s incredibly hard to get right. This, from a girl whose thing is sending a Facebook friend request the morning after we meet, then being like, my work is done—it’s your turn.

Actually, I do okay. I get the number, send the text or email. Frankly—and this is a sentiment shared by most single friends of mine—I don’t meet that many interesting people. It’s a shame to let one slip by. So, creepy roadside dude: respect. Except maybe work on your text etiquette?

Aziz Ansari, as confused and exhausted by all this as any normal twenty-to-thirtysomething person alive, partnered with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to really examine (read: gaze in disbelief upon) dating rituals in his aptly titled book, Modern Romance. This American Life previewed their “social experiment”—a data-driven analysis of millennial attitudes toward love and relationships—last Sunday in a segment titled, “Romancing the Phone.”

I became a regular This American Life listener while living in the show’s hometown, Chicago. I heard my very first episode sitting on the curb at the Fullerton El stop, waiting for a boy who was always late, not very nice and never returned calls or texts. Needless to say, I crushed hard on him hard forever.

More than five years later, not much has changed.

Sunday’s episode of This American Life features Aziz and Eric at a comedy shop in New York City, soliciting real-life First Contact exchanges from their audience members—some truly appalling, others merely kind of sad in their sincerity and confusedness. My favorite goes like this:

[Text from boy stranger]: Hi.

Girl text: Hi…is this Connor?

Boy text: This is.

I imagine a confused and silent few minutes here, before the saintly Girl replies: Hi, what’s going on? 

Boy text: I’m actually just waking up. Picking my mix out for the morning. So far it’s consisting of Goodbye Horses and Big Pimpin.’

Girl text: Oh, nice! [NOT REALLY] What are you up to tonight?

Boy text: Not sure yet. I’m thinking I’ll eat some mushrooms.

This is what we’re working with.

Following a lively discussion of case studies like these, Aziz and Eric settle upon some best practices. Guys (and girls, because we can do it too!)–when you are in the very first tender and awkward stages of texting with someone you miiiight like, follow these simple rules:

Be personal. Hey, you mentioned that you like The National–have you heard this one? Check it out–it’s amazing.

Be specific. Want to get a drink at around 8pm tomorrow in Columbia Heights?

Be funny.

I take issue with this one—being funny is really hard. Also subjective. I think this actually means “be yourself.” Let your weirdo personality shine through. Don’t be aggressive about it, but know that if someone doesn’t get sarcasm and you’re a deeply cynical, observant and slightly judgmental person, it probably won’t work.

Ansari is hilarious. Klinenberg is interesting and smart. And it’s so very true: dating is hard. Today—via text, email Hinge, Tinder, OkCupid—being honest, knowing yourself and trusting people is really, epically hard. It’s so easy to unknowingly strike the wrong tone when you decide to put it all out there—or to ignore someone else when they do.

So, if you’re where I am right now—interested, freaked out, not sure about my life but certain that I’d like some company while I figure it out—take twelve minutes and listen to this excerpt of an always phenomenally sensitive and relevant show. What this audio clip demonstrates to me is: we’re all in this together. That people are basically kind, and calculated risks pay off, and if you’re a socially inept turd, that’s probably not going to change and stop it right now.

The courage to make the ask will set you apart. Or at least, it’s better than waking up the next morning and wishing you had…right?

–Elise

Have Culture, Will Travel

It’s here! Spring Break!  Enough of this tease we call Chicago spring; take me to the snow! (…what was I thinking…) In a few short days, I’ll be bleary-eyed on a 7am flight to Colorado, trying to decide whether I should nap or have too much coffee and soldier through. I’m spending my first time off in 2015 skiing with a mish-mash of college friends and total strangers, whom I assume are all my new BFFs-in-waiting.

But, spoiler alert, the Midwest is flat as hell, and I have to make it to those pristine mountains first. So, for those of you with extended traveling coming up, here are some things to Watch, Read, and Listen To on your way.

A preliminary note: I prefer my Pop Culture for Travel to be on the lite side—engrossing, easily digestible, and funny (usually). If you look forward to a seven-hour train ride for the opportunity to make a serious dent in American Pastoral, this list is not for you.

WATCH

Like the average impoverished twentysomething, I fly Southwest. I have a laptop whose battery dies within forty minutes, so I’m unable to enjoy the Wi-Fi-accessible DISH Network programming provided by the airline. It’s been a while since I watched a movie on a plane, but maybe you have an iPad that works. Or you’re using your parents’ miles to fly first class or something.

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Picking something to watch in a public place requires some delicacy. It can’t be too sexy or too murder-y, lest an old lady or a child sits next to you. And it must have a quick pace—otherwise you become distracted by the discomfort of your chair, and the fact that you and your seatmate have been playing elbow-footsie for three hours. (If we can’t share the armrest, than neither of us should have it!) I really enjoy animated movies or action flicks while traveling. Anything Pixar should do the trick. Same goes for the Bourne trilogy or The Avengers. Also, Sherlock. That doesn’t fit into either category, really, but whatever. Whatever, I say!

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For something a little more off the beaten path, I highly, highly recommend Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, streaming on Netflix. Anyone familiar with his comedy or his This American Life appearances knows Birbiglia’s signature stand up/storytelling style. His special is funny and heartfelt and bittersweet. I watched it while I was still working in my obituary call center job, and the fact that it was still enjoyable while in that pit of despair is testimonial enough.

READ

If you’re unfamiliar with the blog Hyperbole and a Half, please educate yourself. Start here. Allie Brosh’s MS Paint illustrations enliven her stories, which range from whimsical, childhood antics to darker issues like depression. She tackles them all with humor and vulnerability, and she has made me cry with laughter many times. Her graphic novel (also titled Hyperbole and a Half, published November 2013), includes new pieces as well as old favorites from her site. Read it in hardcopy or on a color tablet—you don’t want to miss any of the graphics.

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I love a good mystery. Like, actually good—one that is both gripping and well-written is rare. I would like to recommend I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, but as I am a third of the way in, I cannot yet, in good conscience. I’ll keep you posted. So instead, I’m going with an old standby: In the Woods by Tana French, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series. If you know me even remotely, I’ve recommended this book to you—so I won’t carry on. But if I haven’t, please read it! It’s an excellent example of the genre, which has been relegated, unfortunately, to “beach and/or airport reads.” It’s not just a good mystery novel; it’s a good novel.

Or just read Bossypants again.

LISTEN

I’ve been devouring audiobooks lately, thanks to both the public library and the website Audible. The key is finding the right book with the right narrator. Listening to a book and knowing you’d be enjoying it more on the page is The Worst. To start, I heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, or any of his titles, all of which are read by the author. His sardonic delivery is just right for all who regard interacting with other humans as….complicated. Fair warning: you’ll be That Guy/Gal with your headphones in, smiling idiotically into the middle distance.

Fans of Buttercup and Wesley will enjoy As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, narrated by author Cary Elwes and the cast and crew of the film. It’s an oral history of sorts, and while there’s no real conflict, per se, the warmth of the stories complements the nostalgia of the movie.

I assume you have listened to the podcast SERIAL, so I shan’t waste my breath. Instead I’m recommending the Fast & Furious 6 episode of How Did This Get Made?, a comedy podcast from the Earwolf network. The regulars Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas—whom you might recognize from The League, New Girl, or Burning Love—break down the worst movies out there. This particular episode features my ideal mate, Adam Scott, and the best part about it is how much they all LOVED the movie. They discuss it with such unmitigated glee that I went out and paid actual money to see it (only $5, but still). DO NOT WORRY IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE. This episode is still thoroughly hilarious, even out of context.

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That should be enough to get you there and back again, mon petit chous. Now go traveling!

—Alison

The Voices In My Head

Live from Sixth and I Synagogue, in Washington, D.C.!

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It’s weird to develop relationships with radio personalities. You get to know their voices intimately—inflection, tone, laugh, cough. You decide what they look like. You become terrified that their real faces won’t measure up, or will somehow change everything.

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I hate hearing recordings of my own voice. Fortunately, I avoid microphones and rarely call my own phone through to voicemail, so the audio is easy to avoid. When I do hear myself played back, I don’t like it. Is my voice always that deep, and vaguely androgynous? Why do I say some words with a British cadence, and why hasn’t anyone told me to stop? But most of all—my recorded voice doesn’t sound like me, as I imagine myself to be. It’s disconcerting.

A voice without a face is a strange thing. My favorite radio personalities and podcast hosts are in my head, but disembodied—not fully real. The voices of Ira Glass, John Hodgman and Audie Cornish are, in many ways, more the message they deliver than they are themselves. Depending on who’s speaking, I’m ready to listen quietly, or laugh along, or think very seriously about Syria.

I have spent hundreds of hours listening to NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon speak, and their pop culture podcast is much more to me than just a group of people, talking about stuff. They are an authoritative bunch that has introduced me to some of my favorite books, movies and TV shows. Their voices—full of warmth and character—command respect, and not a little bit of devotion from the likes of Alison and me.

I attended the most recent live taping of Pop Culture Happy Hour at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. I wish Alison had been with me. I saw Linda, Stephen and Glen in action, and guess what? They have bodies, and very expressive faces, and are actually a little discomfited sitting before hundreds of plaid-and-glasses wearing NPR nerds. They are used to microphones and a studio. We are used to piping them into our brains through ear buds. It was strange for everyone.

Glen was my favorite panelist to observe. He played to us and with us, and made us promise to buy his book. He also spoke about this very phenomenon: the explosive popularity of podcasting in 2014, and the way that the relationship between “disembodied voice” and listener is evolving as a result.

Glen spoke about the intimacy of podcasting—it’s not straight-up news reporting, with all the journalistic rigor and formality that often requires. Podcasts showcase “the rough stuff,” very personal process stories, without time-stamps. Podcasts give the impression of being raw, immediate and unedited. In the moment.

PCHH is still an NPR program, so my feeling is that Linda’s podcast will never sound quite as informal or unfinished as, say, SERIAL. But being physically present with this group hammered home the fact that the voices in my head (the radio ones) aren’t godlike or all-knowing. They’re just people. Telling stories, or being goofy. Or being Sarah Koenig (whatever that means).

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That’s what Alison and I are doing—we’ve got stuff to say, and we’re finding a way to share, whatever that means for us. We’re nothing special—not yet. We expect to be very famous, quite soon.

–Elise