Radio Diaries no. 49: Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl

Radio Diaries:

Majd Abdulghani is a teenager living in Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries for women in the world. She wants to be a scientist. Her family wants to arrange her marriage. From the age of 19 to 21, Majd has been chronicling her life with a microphone, taking us inside a society where the voices of women are rarely heard. She records herself practicing karate, conducting experiments in a genetics lab, and fending off pressure to accept an arranged marriage. In her audio diary, Majd documents everything from arguments with her brother about how much she should cover herself in front of men, to late night thoughts about loneliness, arranged marriages, and the possibility of true love.

I’m not breaking any news by pointing out how awesome Radio Diaries is, but this episode is even more special than usual. In a time when some people want to build walls and close themselves off from the rest of the world, it becomes even more important to listen to something like this. To learn, to educate, to expand your mind, and to better understand what you don’t have experience with.


Alan Sepinwall’s Interview of Matt Weiner

Matt Weiner, responding to Alan Sepinwall’s asking why no actor on Mad Men has ever won an Emmy for their performance:

I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s always a story every year, is all I can say. There’s always a story why someone else should get it or what it is. I don’t understand awards handicapping, but I do not vote in the actors’ categories. I’ll tell you one thing. No one treats them like they haven’t won. They are revered, and I see the way other actors respond to their work. It’s the way you want. It’s like part reverence, part jealousy. They’re competitive. They are at the top of that pyramid in whatever way you want. And being nominated means that, and having the work means that.

But I have one personal theory, which is that the acting style is different on the show. That it’s very naturalistic and that is not a showy — you know, I don’t write Emmy scenes for them, either. Maybe that’s it. Elisabeth Moss always jokes that whenever she works somewhere else people are always like, “Cry your eyes out.” And I’m almost like, “Don’t cry. Do everything you can not to cry,” because I feel like that produces more emotion in the audience. But maybe it’s too much of an ensemble? I don’t know.

That’s good art—successful art—in a nutshell. Not crying when everyone else thinks you should cry.


IBSWTD’s Favorite Podcasts: Radio Diaries: ‘Teenage Diaries Revisited: Melissa’s Story’

Having a podcast means getting other people to listen to your podcast. It isn’t easy. I’m always asking people to rate/review my show on iTunes, or tell a friend, or pledge a dollar or two on Patreon. I realized the other day that what I should also be doing is following my own advice by telling others about my favorite shows. So here’s my first IBSWTD’s Favorite Podcasts pick: the 3/10/15 episode of HowSound: ‘Teenage Diaries Revisited: Melissa’s Story.’ Here’s HowSound’s Rob Rosenthal, writing for

In 1996, Joe [Richman] produced Teen Diaries. He gave tape decks to teenagers to document their lives. The result, intimate portraits that, most likely, would have resulted in a very different piece had a producer been present during the field recordings. One of these diaries featured Melissa Rodriguez. It was called Teen Mom. Sixteen years later, Joe handed out recorders again to several of the original diarists, including Melissa.

A few things:

1. Radio Diaries, Richman’s podcast/radio show, is awesome. You should listen to all of the available episodes. ‘Walter the Seltzerman—It’s Not Easy Being Last’ and ’Strange Fruit—Voices of a Lynching’ come to mind as two of my favorites.
2. The Teenage Diaries Revisited series is also a must-listen. All of them, but especially the episode highlighted here.
3. HowSound, the podcast that is highlighting said episode, is also worth your time. It’s a little inside-baseball sometimes, but it’s worth it if nothing for the recommendations about other great shows.
4. Make sure you listen to the HowSound edition of ‘Teenage Diaries Revisited: Melissa’s Story’ that I’m linking to here, since you get to hear the story as well as an interview with Richman and Melissa.

So that’s my first IBSWTD’s Favorite Podcasts pick. I hope you enjoy it and if you do (or don’t) please feel free to let me know on my Twitter or the show’s Twitter.


David Sedaris’ ‘Let It Snow’

David Sedaris, The New Yorker:

Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. On the fifth day of our vacation, my mother had a little breakdown. Our presence had disrupted the secret life she led while we were at school, and when she could no longer take it she threw us out. It wasn’t a gentle request but something closer to an eviction. “Get the hell out of my house,” she said.

We reminded her that it was our house, too, and she opened the front door and shoved us into the carport. “And stay out!” she shouted.


‘Serial’ and the Other Side of the Hype

If you don’t know what ‘Serial’ is by now, you’re probably not a tenant of the internet. It’s a podcast, a true crime story told in installments that has put the term ‘podcast’ on the tip of everyone’s tongue, never mind the fact that there’s nothing new about true crime stories, crime stories set in Baltimore, stories told in installments, narrative arcs, podcasts, or listening.

As of the last couple of episodes, I’ve started to sour on ‘Serial.’ For one, they were boring. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with basking in the details of a case where, if nothing else, someone’s daughter died. Frankly, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the Team Edward/Team Jacob-esque “Is Adnan guilty?!” speculation, when Occam’s Razor seems to have that answer already, to say nothing for a jury and a judge. And as a writer, I’ve been able to see the, pardon the pun, writing on the wall for a handful of episodes now—there is going to be little in the way of a happy ending, or even a payoff for listening. And anyone who has spent any amount of time listening to This American Life should have seen that as well. I wonder if the producers of ‘Serial’ are prepared for that backlash?

But this morning, I became aware of a new undercurrent to the show’s mostly positive reception—the clashing of the worldviews of Sarah Koenig, the woman reporting/telling the story, and the people she is reporting on. Jay Caspian Kang, in his piece “‘Serial’ and White Reporter Privilege,” writes:

The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show—and there are many more examples—should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. Who among us (and here, I’m talking to fellow people of color) hasn’t felt that subtle, discomforting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative? Who hasn’t said a word like “parameters” and watched, with grim annoyance, as it turns into “immigrant parents?” These are usually silent, cringing moments – it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.

Now, I’m not writing this, or linking to Kang’s story, or the responses, because I agree or disagree with his take; (although, the people who I’ve talked to about the show will probably know how I feel. Hint: vindicated.) I’ll let you be the judge. Because maybe you agree with Lindsay Beyerstein, who wants to know why there’s “a cottage industry of think pieces dedicated to making us feel guilty about liking Serial?” Or maybe you agree with Jaime Green’s “The Problem With the Problems With Serial,” although I would hesitate against it, since it’s kind of lacking in substance, as Jay Caspian Kang points out here. Finally, maybe you agree with Julia Carrie Wong’s “The Problem With ‘Serial’ And The Model Minority Myth,” who takes a different track from Kang, but still raises concerns about the treatment of race in ‘Serial.’

What I do know is this—Liberals/Democrats often take Republicans/Conservatives to task for a lack of diversity in their chosen leadership. Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so I ask: does this look like the ideal team to dive deep into a complex story where race and religion are obvious factors, there are no white main characters, and it all takes place in a city that is 63% black?


Why Podcasts Are Suddenly ‘Back’

Marco Arment:

The story of podcasts suddenly being “back” strongly suggests, and mostly requires, that they had been big at one time and had since gone away. That New York Magazine article even cites a “bottom” time: 2010. But that never really happened.

Podcasts in 2010 were a lot like podcasts in 2007, which were a lot like podcasts in 2004, which are a lot like podcasts in 2014. There’s a lot of tech shows (and a lot of tech listeners), but most of the biggest are professionally produced public-radio shows released as podcasts, with other strong contingents in comedy, business, and religion, followed by a huge long tail of special interests with small but passionate audiences.

All I ask is that anyone who is suddenly into podcasts because of Serial give this a read.


Kim Jong-il’s Sushi Chef

Adam Johnson:

All the men wore military uniforms except for one imperious fellow in a casual sports tracksuit. This man was curious about the fish. He asked Fujimoto about the marbled, fleshy cuts he was preparing.

"That's toro," Fujimoto told him.

For the rest of the night, this man kept calling out, "Toro, one more!"

The next day, Fujimoto was talking to the mamasan of his hotel. She was holding a newspaper, the official Rodong Sinmun, and on the front page was a photo of the man in the tracksuit. Fujimoto told her this was the man he'd just served dinner.

"She started trembling," Fujimoto said of the moment he realized the man's true identity. "Then I started trembling."

The man in the tracksuit invited Fujimoto back to make more sushi. Fujimoto didn't speak Korean, so he had a government-appointed interpreter with him at all times. At the end of the evening, a valet handed the interpreter an envelope.

"From Jang-gun-nim," the valet said.

Perhaps the reason Fujimoto hadn't known he'd been serving Kim Jong-il was because "no one ever called him by his real name," Fujimoto said. "Never."

I’m an hour out from having a 19 month-old puke pomegranate arils and Tylenol and milk all over me, so I can’t really remember why or where I found this, but here it is. As I read, I had to stop and keep reminding myself that, according to the author, anyway, this was all true.


Sea of Crises

Brian Phillips:

In January I flew to Tokyo to spend two weeks watching sumo wrestling. Tokyo, the city where my parents were married — I remember gazing up at their Japanese wedding certificate on the wall and wondering what it meant. Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said to end, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

The subheading for this piece, Grantland’s initial, I think, foray into design-conscious, long-form, "Snow Fall"-style narrative journalism, is:

A sumo wrestling tournament.
A failed coup ending in seppuku.
A search for a forgotten man.
How one writer’s trip to Japan became a journey through oblivion.

The collision—pun intended, in a piece about sumo wrestling—here between the content and the style, and the author’s voice, is magical. “Sea of Crises” is so, so worth your time; you will be transported. Read it as soon as you can.


Altered States

Oliver Sacks:

Within a minute or so, my attention was drawn to a sort of commotion on the sleeve of my dressing gown, which hung on the door. I gazed intently at this, and as I did so it resolved itself into a miniature but microscopically detailed battle scene. I could see silken tents of different colors, the largest of which was flying a royal pennant. There were gaily caparisoned horses, soldiers on horseback, their armor glinting in the sun, and men with longbows. I saw pipers with long silver pipes, raising these to their mouths, and then, very faintly, I heard their piping, too. I saw hundreds, thousands of men—two armies, two nations—preparing to do battle. I lost all sense of this being a spot on the sleeve of my dressing gown, or the fact that I was lying in bed, that I was in London, that it was 1965. Before shooting up the morphine, I had been reading Froissart’s “Chronicles” and “Henry V,” and now these became conflated in my hallucination. I realized that I was gazing at Agincourt, late in 1415, and looking down on the serried armies of England and France drawn up to do battle. And in the great pennanted tent, I knew, was Henry V himself. I had no sense that I was imagining or hallucinating any of this; what I saw was actual, real.

After a while, the scene started to fade, and I became dimly conscious, once more, that I was in London, stoned, hallucinating Agincourt on the sleeve of my dressing gown. It had been an enchanting and transporting experience, but now it was over. The drug effect was fading fast; Agincourt was hardly visible now. I glanced at my watch. I had injected the morphine at nine-thirty, and now it was ten. But I had a sense of something odd—it had been dusk when I took the morphine, it should now be darker still. But it was not. It was getting lighter, not darker, outside. It was ten, I now realized, but ten in the morning. I had been gazing, motionless, at my Agincourt for more than twelve hours. This shocked and sobered me, and made me see how one could spend entire days, nights, weeks, even years of one’s life in an opium stupor. I would make sure that my first opium experience was also my last.

If you like good writing, and you like reading about drugs, you’re in luck.