The lives of others

September 4, 2008

I’m an NPR kid. Carl Castle’s voice permeates elementary school memories of riding in the passenger seat next to my dad while listening to Morning Edition. On weekend nights, my mom always did the dishes to the warm beat of African music coming over the radio waves (“You’re listening to Afropop Worldwide!”). She fell asleep on the couch every Sunday afternoon to Garrison Keiler’s smooth voice on A Prairie Home Companion. My father continues to be completely addicted to news programming, and my mom still loves her music hours, but my favorite programs have always been the ones dedicated to storytelling.


Podcasts of This American Life and other radio shows devoted to making real-life snippets into stories got me through my bus commute this summer. Call it voyeuristic, but I’m fascinated by the simple truths of other people’s lives. I love to hear a stranger laugh about night terrors that had him convinced there was a jackal in his bedroom, a woman talk about the time she tried to write a break-up song despite her lack of musical abilities (and got in touch with Phil Collins for pointers), a man explain how he unwittingly became a paid spokesman for California foster kids at the age of 17. As time went by, I almost enjoyed getting up and out of the house each morning for work. If I arrived at the office in the middle of a story, I would sigh, push pause, and begin counting the hours until I could rejoin my storyteller for the bus ride home. At the end of the day, pushing play again felt like rekindling a friendship with an old friend.

The feeling of anticipation while listening to someone tell a great story immobilizes forks in midair over plates of uneaten food at dinner parties, turns the pages of a great memoir into the early hours of the morning, and kept me refreshing my podcasts constantly from May until August. The realness of these stories, be they day-to-day or once-in-a-lifetime, sucks me in. The trials and triumphs, the oddities, the coincidences, the ironies, the miracles unfolding every day are what garner my attention.

A great story is nothing without a great storyteller, and the best storyteller I know is my father. For a man with a questionable grasp of the English language, he can recount any one of his incredible adventures in riveting detail. To this day, I still have not heard them all, and I am thankful for that. I will keep asking for those I have heard time and time again until I memorize them myself—like the one about his exploits humiliating a mean-spirited priest in his Austrian town by posing as a devout altar-boy and then turning Sunday Mass into a circus, or the one when he inadvertently handcuffed his commander to a doorknob during his compulsory military service, or the one about how he threw an arm around King Gustav XVI of Sweden without knowing who he was, or about the night the drunken Swedish national ski team invited him into the dining room of the hotel where he worked as a chef to congratulate him on his excellent goulash, hanging their Lake Placid Olympic medals around his neck and inviting him to join in their celebration.

My love of travel comes in part from my need to live my own stories, and though I know they will never measure up to those of my parents, I love the little thrill I got from talking about sleeping next to Bedouins and donkeys during my illegal four-day camping trip in the ancient ruins of Petra, Jordan. Telling that story, I get to feel ridiculous and extraordinary, even though I’m a fairly normal person.

At the age of twelve, I called in to The Savvy Traveler, an NPR show hosted by Rudy Maxa, to tell what I thought was the mesmerizing tale of anchovies I had eaten (and enjoyed!) on a recent family trip to visit my uncle in Northern Italy in response to a prompt about new foods listeners had experienced while traveling. The segment aired a few Saturdays later, and I felt the storyteller’s high for the first time.

Whenever I put on my headphones to hear the stories of lives lived and broadcasted on the radio, I think of the complexities of the storytellers’ existences that I will never know. I relate to them now as more than just voices. I am connected to them as a fellow seeker of stories.

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