GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
From PRX and NPR, welcome back to the SNAP, our "Rites of Passage" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. Now, everyone knows that the time immediately following the birth of a child is one of the happiest times of your life. Everyone knew this - everyone but Megan.
MEGAN STIELSTRA: For the first few months after my son was born, I just called him the baby, or sometimes him with a capital H. Is he eating? Not eating? Pooping not pooping? What color is the poop? How long ago was the poop? Did I mark the poop on the spreadsheet? I had spreadsheets. I had stuff. White noise CDs and magnetic locks and this super high-tech video monitor with a remote wireless screen and night vision, which made the baby glow electric green in the dark like he was a CIA target. It was a little unnerving, actually. It had two frequencies - an A channel and a B channel in case you had two kids in separate rooms. And what's interesting about this is that one of my neighbors must have owned this same monitor because on channel A I saw my baby and on channel B I saw somebody else's baby. And if I could see some else's baby then somebody else could see mine.
At the time we lived in a third floor walk-up in uptown surrounded by other third floor walk-ups. Jumping onto a neighbor's Wi-Fi signal wasn't much of a stretch, so perhaps the fact that I could toggle between babies shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was. It was huge. I was obsessed. On one hand, it was totally creepy, stalking even. But after I got used to the idea, it was sort of magical, like, walkie-talkies and CB radios when you're a kid, connecting someone across the void. Who knows who might be listening? Who knows who's in that condo on channel B? A baby, to be sure. But it wasn't the baby I was obsessed with. It was the mother. Did she sit there watching my kid in the dark? Did she question his bedtime, wonder where I got his pajamas? How might she react if I left a sign in his crib that read, stop looking at my baby, you voyeur? Or what about this one - yay, new friends, do you want to meet up at the park?
Or, what about the truth - I am terrified, I am so terrified that sometimes I can't even breathe?
The baby had been born in the middle of a Chicago blizzard and that relentless, pounding snow stayed through January, February, March and into April. I am a part-time college teacher, no paid maternity leave. And since I took the winter term off to be with the baby, my husband Christopher a web designer, picked up extra projects to cover the difference. He worked all day, came home and went back to work, sleeping three, maybe four hours a night, all while carrying the mortgage, the bills, the baby and me.
Christopher, I'd whisper - middle of the night, night after night - the baby's not breathing.
Honey, Christopher would say - he was so tired, he was trying so hard to be patient - the baby is fine.
The baby is not fine.
He can't breathe.
I was scared to sleep - the baby might suffocate. I was scared to go outside - the baby might freeze. I was scared that he wasn't eating, wasn't latching, wasn't gaining, wasn't doing what the books had said he would do. And one day after a particularly awful bout of screaming - him - and crying - both of us - I looked into the mirror and wondered who that girl was looking back. I was un-brushed, un-washed, wearing the same yoga pants and empire waist shirt every day. We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true and suddenly I couldn't remember any of them. I couldn't write. I couldn't laugh. I couldn't connect with my friends.
At the time my understanding of postpartum depression was primarily shaped by Brooke Shields's memoir, "Down Came The Rain," a crippling depression, suicidal thoughts. But since what I was experiencing, while heavy, didn't seem that heavy. Dark, but not really that dark. Scary, but not like that. It didn't occur to me to ask for help. I mean, I wasn't going to hurt my kid. I wasn't going to hurt myself. Right?
Now four years later, I know that the symptoms and intensity of postpartum depression are as varied as the flowers in a greenhouse. I wish I'd told someone. I didn't need to feel so alone. Just me and the frozen Chicago winter with my tiny, fragile baby and channel B. Whenever the baby would fall asleep, I would stare at his Day-Glo body on the monitor, making sure he wasn't levitating or exploding or whatever other horrible thing I'd imagine. And then once assured of his safety, I'd flip the channel to see how that other mother was doing. Maybe her kid was eating. Maybe she changed clothes occasionally. Maybe for her, snow was not a terrifying apocalypse, but a Hallmark-like sprinkling of picturesque flakes. And yes, I know it was completely intrusive and unethical and above all else, ridiculous. Sometimes there was a baby wiggling and doing baby things, but mostly there was just an empty crib, until one night I flipped over to channel B and heard crying. It wasn't from the baby. He was fast asleep, an angel. But somewhere in his room a woman was sobbing heavy, gasp-y, gulp-y sobs. They went on. They went on and on. I shouldn't have listened, but it was the first time since my son was born that I didn't feel alone.
What finally changed things was spring. May was a godsend, a great mammoth hand reaching down out of the clouds and pulling me to my feet. The baby became Caleb, laughing, connecting, learning about the world outside my lap. I'd strap him in a backpack and we would walk through uptown, finding magic in everyday things - plastic grocery bags, tapping a glass with a spoon, water in a dish. And one morning he reached for a yellow street-cleaning sign stapled to a tree and all at once, I saw yellow as if I'd been blind to it for years - brake lights, parking lanes, flowers, taxis - woman in a yellow shirt pushing a stroller. I stopped. She was pretty, early 30s, wearing yoga pants and her shirt had an empire waist. She looked nice - and tired, and interesting, like there were all sorts of secret things about her that were set on pause for the time being. She looked like how I saw myself. We nodded at each other in solidarity. This, I had newly discovered, is the way that moms do it, acknowledging the fact that even though you don't know each other, you're still a part of this great cosmic team. And then you check out each other's kids. Her baby was grabbing his toes in the stroller - so sweet, so adorable, so - familiar. I looked closer. Yeah, I knew this kid. And suddenly I saw him not all face-to-face on Lawrence Avenue, but electric green on tiny handheld screen. I looked back at the mother. You know - and then I stopped because really, what would I have said, stop looking at my baby? Do you want to meet up at the park? How about the truth? You helped save me. Your baby is beautiful, she said. So is yours, I said. We stood there. We stood there long past what is appropriate for strangers. I like to think that she was thinking the same thing I was, that maybe she too had flipped channels in the night trying to connect with someone across the void or feel less alone in this crazy world. Maybe she'd overheard me crying in Caleb's bedroom months ago when everything still seemed so cold. Maybe she'd needed me as much as I'd needed her.
How are you? I asked. She smiled. I'm getting better. Me too, I said. I'm getting better. It was something about myself that I knew was true.
WASHINGTON: "Channel B" was first written and performed for the 2nd Story storytelling series and recorded by Eric Hazen in the 2nd Story studio in Chicago, first published at the Rumpus, and later included in "The Best American Essays Of 2013." It was produced by Eliza Smith, with sound design by Leon Morimoto.
OK. Don't you fret, don't you frown and don't reach for high-grade pharmaceutical agents. Why? Because full episodes of SNAP JUDGMENT are available right now - pictures, movies, stuff. Subscribe to the podcast, the amazing podcast - snapjudgment.org. Join the conversation on Facebook, on Twitter, Stitcher, SoundCloud, iTunes, Android - get it your way, SNAPers.
WASHINGTON: Now, did you ever try to do one of those Hulk Hogan, off the ropes, clothes line moves to that one kid, but accidentally hit somebody else? Well, we did that. We would like to assure the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that it will not happen again. So sorry - big apologies to the CPB. PRX, Public Radio Exchange, told us to wear our wrestling outfit, but told everyone else to wear regular clothes. PRX .org. As you know, WBEZ in Chicago likes to wrestle in winter coats. We don't think that's fair.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hold on - I'm sorry, I didn't know you were going back to that.
WASHINGTON: And this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, your opponent could be arguing his case to the referee even while you sneak up behind him with a folding chair, and you would still, still not be as far away from the news as this is. But, this is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
For six years, casual public radio listeners and die-hard Snappers alike have come to recognize Glynn Washington's comforting, yet compelling voice. As the host of NPR's Snap Judgment, Washington introduces audiences to stories both familiar and extraordinary on his weekly show of narrative non-fiction, with only a hint of dramatic flair.
James Judd might be the complete opposite of that.
Heard regularly on Snap episodes and, more frequently, as "The Closer" for Snap Judgment Live shows, Judd's style is both deeply theatrical and completely recognizable. At times his storytelling is reminiscent of everyone's outrageous friend, the one who gets himself into precarious situations — from an "accidental" run-in at a whorehouse in China to a true man-versus-shark battle in the open ocean — and can't wait to tell you all about it, capturing everyone's attention at a party. Other times you may find yourself wondering just how much community theater this guy did in college. And it may surprise you to learn that actually, he went to law school, and boy does he have some stories.
He'll be telling one this Sunday when Snap Judgment Live comes to Mesa Arts Center for a night of its signature "storytelling ... with a beat" on stage. And for a guy like Judd, who took an anecdote about a grade-school book report and turned it into a 30-minute long emotional journey, nothing is off limits and everybody has a story to share.
"I always tell people to get out there and tell a story," the humorist tells New Times during a phone interview. "You don't have to do it with the aim of doing it professionally or doing it on a big stage, but to get up and tell a story. It's enormously empowering and it's an experience that I wish everybody could do: Get up and tell a story about yourself in front of an audience."
New Times: Your career reminds me a little of a Venn Diagram: you've been described as a comedian, storyteller, monologist—
Judd: And a humorist. [laughs]
And a humorist. Which do you prefer?
The humorist one is kind of the latest one that I've heard. There's not one that really explains exactly what I do. Storyteller, actor, comedian, humorist — none of them are quite right. None of them really fit the storytelling movement either, because even the word "storytelling" isn't quite right. What we're really talking about is autobiographical, sort of confessional essays. So, am I a live, confessional essayist? [laughs] I don't know. The funny thing is [storytelling], it's such a huge movement now. They're everywhere: They're on every Monday night slow night at a bar.
If I have to pick one, humorist sounds good, but you still couldn't tell what it is that I'm doing just from hearing the word, right? It doesn't say whether you're funny in person or on stage or is it radio. Nothing really fits.
Actually, I like to refer to myself as an NPR superstar. I don't know how NPR feels about that, but it doesn't stop me from doing it. [laughs]
Yeah, you and like, Audie Cornish. You mention something that I want to talk about, which is that "storytelling" is everywhere. That's true in Phoenix. We get national acts like The Moth and Snap Judgment coming through, but we also have weekly and monthly open mics, readings, and rehearsed, themed events.
You know, I came there and I did a show in Scottsdale at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and it was packed. And it was really good. It was really, really well produced, but you're right, it's everywhere.
With all of these events you get a lot of like, your neighbors standing up and telling a story. And it makes me wonder, what separates a story that you tell at a party from one that you can tell on stage? Or is that how all of your stories start?
They do, but they start that way intentionally. They always start with one bit really. One little story, like I went to the North Pole to find polar bears — which I did — and then some little bit that you tell people once to see if you get a reaction, and then you tell another hundred times, and if there's sort of a consistent reaction then I start to see, "Well, is there a whole story there that I can tell?"
But then what really separates the people who do this professionally from the people who get up and tell a story at a party is decades of stagecraft and experience. I was an accidental stand-up comedian — but a pretty successful one — in my 20s, and all that stage time and rehearsals and horrible situations come into play in being able to pull off a good story.
Do you think that anything can be a story? Is a story its content or is it its presentation?
A story is its content, above all else. The elements of a good story have to be present [and] there's not just one set of elements, there's many. You have to have a good story, because the best presentation won't put over a bad story.
At the same time, without those presentation skills the story is not gonna fly in front of a large group of people. There's a big difference between telling the story at a party where you can do it casually and doing it in front of, you know, 2,000 people. The story is always first, but depending on where you're gonna tell it, the importance of the presentation skills come in.
What makes a good story in your opinion?
It's gotta have two main things I think. It's gotta be true; it's gotta be a true story about yourself. It's gotta be personal. I think that there's just a craving — I saw a story in the New York Times this week about how this is the age of kale. It was talking about our need for wellness activities and insight into ourselves and this movement that is very popular right now. I think storytelling goes along with that. So, not only does it have to be a true story about yourself, because people sort of crave that realness, but it has to be something at stake emotionally. There can't be a story about someone else's dog getting lost; it has to be a story about your dog and what that meant to you.
People want to hook into that emotional connection, and I think that that emotional arch of a story is more important, almost, than the words that are said. If you ask anybody who just came out of a comedy, a really funny movie, they say that movie was hilarious and I totally cried at the end. If you ask them to recite any of the lines from the movie, they probably wouldn't be able to do it — but they definitely can follow that emotional arch.
You mention that article, and that taps into something — I feel like we're sharing more now, as a society. And I don't know if that's because of some sort of movement or if that's something else we get to blame social media for.
We've learned to share via social media. We've learned to share a sentence a day or 10 times a day on Facebook. [laughs] We've learned to share in a way, throw something out into the public sphere. But it's a big jump to go from writing something on Facebook where you're not looking at people — and you also don't get an instant reaction — to standing on stage telling the same thing to people, and you get an instant reaction. I think one kind of leads to the other, you know? We're now more interested in the minutia of other people's daily lives, which we've gotten from Facebook. 'Oh look, my baby ate a whole piece of solid food today.' [laughs] Things you'd never be interested in seeing. Now we've sort of conditioned ourselves to hearing a whole story about somebody.
But at the same time, with live storytelling, the desire for that is also caused by the sort of over-dependence on technology. It's both, I think. I don't think without the social media thing that we've gone through, I don't think storytelling would be having this moment. But I also think it's a reaction to social media dependence. Addiction, really.
Do you think it makes audiences more receptive? What makes an ideal audience?
I never notice any sort of difference in audiences geographically around the country. When we played in LA I thought, 'Oh my god, these people are going to be really uptight and judgmental.' You know, people in LA don't like to laugh, they like to say, 'That's funny.' So I was all prepared for that. That turned out not to be true. In New York, I thought, 'Oh, these New York people are going to be a tough crowd.' They weren't. The experiences have kind of been the same everywhere we've gone with these big shows, so I think that it's a movement that's time has really come.
People are definitely hooked on getting too much information from people. We can share these horrible things like, 'I threw up in my meeting today at the office,' and it goes on Facebook and a hundred people "like" it. We've gotten used to people blurting out too much information, so now you want a little bit of a long-form [laughs] story. But I have to say, I'm always surprised at how much people enjoy it. I always think it's going to be a tougher sell than it is. These shows sell out really fast and the people there are pumped up to hear this. Sometimes, I'll be thinking, 'Oh my god, the show's going on too long, the audience is getting edgy.' It's never true. I don't know that I have the answer to that, except that all the concerns and the fears, the baggage I carried with me when I was a stand-up comic in my 20s, it's just never the case anymore. Nobody heckles. [laughs]
Snap Judgment is known for its use of music, and how they weave music into the stories. How important is the inclusion of music, and how does that change your approach on stage?
For me personally, I can't hear anything. I have like 30 percent of a normal person's hearing; I'm functionally deaf. And when I'm in the moment on stage I have almost no concept of the band being there with me or what they're playing or what they're doing. I just hope that it's going well, because I'm so focused on the audience and what I'm doing that it just vanishes. I'm somewhat aware it's there, but I block it out. I know that in rehearsals with the band I do sometimes start to speak in rhythm with the music of the band — but that never actually holds up in performance, and I try to break myself away from doing that. Because it's not my job to speak-sing along with the band, but it can be tempting to do that.
But it's back to that emotional arch thing: the music taps directly into your emotional core. If you hear a certain beat that energizes you, then you are instantly energized. If there is some sort of sound that makes you feel any sort of certain emotion, it does that. The purpose of the band isn’t necessarily to telegraph emotions, because that would be corny. But I think that it can really accentuate the emotional journey that you're taking with the storyteller. It's a benefit. Also it's just really cool. It sounds really cool, and now they've hired an actual pre-existing band to accompany us called Bells Atlas. They're a band with multiple albums and this is the first time it's not a band that was created for Snap, but a band that has come in to collaborate with Snap. So far the rehearsals are really cool, it's a really different experience. It's a bigger band and a very unique sound, I think it's going to be very exciting.
What other storytelling podcasts should Snap listeners be listening to?
There's a show called Risk out of New York City that is recorded in front of a live audience — and that's my sort of favorite recording. There's many, many good podcasts out there, but I like that Risk really is a place where you can do very edgy material that you couldn't do in front of anyone else.
There's some really good smaller podcasts that people should be listening to like, I Love A Good Story out of Los Angeles. I don't know the names, but there's a lot of stuff happening out of Chicago. Chicago's kind of an epicenter for the movement right now. Things are always happening there. So I would say anything out of Chicago, but even more importantly: find something local. Find where the local podcast is being done — and if it's being done in front of a live audience, go be a part of it, because that just makes the experience so much richer.
What advice do you have for those who have stage fright? Do you tell people to imagine the audience in their underwear, or do you have an actual tip?
No, my actual tip is to remember the audience is on your side. The audience wants you to do well, people aren't there to see you fail, they want to see you succeed. Take that nervous energy and use it to energize yourself. I think a lot of the times, if you get up during a meeting at your office, half the people there are really hoping that you're going to bomb, because there's office politics in play. And when you get up in front of your family, there's so much subtext going on that it sucks. But when you get up in front of a group of strangers, you've got to put it into your head that those people are there to see you. They want you to do well; they are supporting you. You shouldn't have that fear of an audience. It's easier to perform in public than it is to perform in front of a family member.
I've never really considered that, but I think that's probably true.
It's absolutely true. A very important rule for comedians is never, ever, ever try out material on your wife, your husband, your parents, your siblings. You never, ever share your material with your immediate family. You just don't do it, it never turns out well. And you really don't do it for your friends either. In reality, you're sort of assuming a different persona — more in stand-up comedy, where people just say anything. But anyway, it's easier to perform in front of a group of strangers than it is in front of your family. Just accept the fact that you're nervous, and get out there and do it. Just do it!
Snap Judgment Live comes to the Ikeda Theater at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, this Sunday, September 18. Stories start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($32 to $47) for this one-night-only show have since sold out, but a waitlist option is available at boxoffice.mesaartscenter.com. For other details, call 480-644-6500 or visit mesaartscenter.com.
Snap Judgment airs Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m. on the Valley's NPR affiliate, KJZZ 91.5 FM. For more on the show and a full list of Snap episodes, head to snapjudgment.org. For information on James Judd's solo performances and tours, go to jamesbjudd.com.
Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.