Deep Listening

Dear Reader,

This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts.  As in broadcasts for the iPod.  My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004.  Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end.  One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.

And now you’ve seen my nerd card. Photo on 4-29-16 at 10.33 AM

For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest.  Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.

But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life.  Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt.  If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening.  The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee.  Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing.  (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial.  Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach.  Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused.  This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.

The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes.  When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.fullsizeoutput_ce0

Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.

Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point.  I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look.  He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system.  Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it.  My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor.  A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students.  His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students.  I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students.  She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection.  My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.

In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle.  If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local

ear hustle
The Ear Hustle Crew (l-r) Williams, Poor, & Woods (Photo from Rolling Stone)
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison.  One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held.  SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him.  His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released.  Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.

Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate.  The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected.  The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.

The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening.  I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather.  Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe.  We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in.  Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them.  Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.

In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):

And I’m always looking for more.  If you are already a podcast lover, tell me: what are you listening to?

 

© Ryna May 2017

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Let Freedom Ring

Dear Reader,

I apologize for missing my First Friday deadline – the first week of classes has me playing catch up, but here we go! Better late than never.

So, I have watched with interest as the controversy around Colin Kaepernick has unfolded.  For those who have not heard, the NFL quarterback has decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem, thereby exercising his right to peacefully protest.  He is doing this to continue to call attention to the reality that people of color are subjected to injustice on a daily basis.  Because of his protest, he has been called a traitor, his jersey has been burned, and people have called him a hypocrite because he happens to make money as a football player.

A couple of things come to mind here:

1. “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem, and I come from a proud military family.  When I hear the anthem, I stop. I face the flag. I legitimately contemplate the sacrifice of our military – tears come to my eyes.  That’s just who I am. I feel respect and pride.  It is my first amendment right to feel that way. Okay.

2. But, I live near Baltimore.  I attend games at Camden Yards.  Fans yell “O” when we get to the part of the verse that goes, “Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave….” – some fans yelled “O” during the Olympic medal ceremony when Michael Phelps was on the podium during the Rio Olympics last month.  He laughed.  Both shouting “O” and laughing during the anthem could be considered disrespectful, no? I missed the outrage on that, but I did see that Gabby Douglas got hammered for not putting her hand over her heart when she was on the podium. Hmm….

3. Did you know that Francis Scott Key’s song has multiple verses?  We only sing the first one.  In the third verse we find these troubling lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”   Well.

I could go on, but I think the main point is emphasized by US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a gay woman, who has also decided to silently and peacefully protest by kneeling during the anthem. The point, and it is an important one, is this: as great as this country is, and as much as we embrace the belief that we are all created equal and deserve equal rights and equal protections, the reality is that this equality is not reality – it is an ideal.  For minorities, including immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ citizens of this country, life is different.  If you have never experienced inequality, I am happy for you.  I know personally that my wife and I sometimes hesitate before holding hands or showing affection in public – even though Maryland is one of the more progressive states in America.  There is always the nagging fear that someone will take exception to our existence and act aggressively about it. We had to wait a few years after we were sure we wanted to be married to legally be allowed to get married in our home state while somewhere in Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Connecticut, and many other states, sixteen-year old heterosexuals were allowed to exchange vows with full support of the American government.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is exactly what the patriots of the Boston Tea Party demonstrated when they dumped the tea in the harbor to show their displeasure over taxes.  It’s what empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the marches against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century.  Freedom of expression allowed Vietnam War protestors to speak out in the 60’s.  It’s the same freedom of expression that allows the Westboro Baptist Church to show up at military funerals and voice their opinions.  It’s the freedom to say that you disagree.  No matter your politics, it’s the freedom that we all have.

To quote Aaron Sorkin (via the film The American President), “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.  You’ve got to want it bad. ‘Cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs for that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.  You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag [or an anthem for that matter], the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag [or sit during that anthem] in protest.’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

In my ethics class this week, we used this issue as an icebreaker.  What I am happy with is how thoughtfully my students considered this question.  They have, at a young age, embraced a nuanced view of the world and the reality that we can reasonably disagree without casting each other in the roles of patriot or traitor.  As someone who believes that the purpose of education is to produce compassionate, independent-minded, informed, and empathetic citizens, this gives me a lot of hope.

Free speech does not just mean that we only celebrate or protect those who agree with us.  Free speech is bigger than you or me or our opinions.  If you think Kaepernick and Rapinoe are wrong for exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate freedom of expression, you have totally missed the point. It does not disrespect the military.  It does not disrespect America. When I stand for the anthem, I celebrate the very freedom that allows them to sit or kneel in protest. That is what freedom really means. You can disagree, but your disagreement does not make them wrong. Let Freedom Ring.

© Ryna May 2016

For Your Grandma

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

Dear Reader,

Have you ever come to a fork in the road?  Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?

Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.”  It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester.  It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother.  The two daughters are as different as they can be.  One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life.  But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college.  She has become her own person.

So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story.  No one really likes Dee.  They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to.  They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother.  They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with.  These are all true observations.  Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her.  They’d rather be Dee.

This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family.  I moved out on my own after high school.  I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have.  I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee.  I put myself through college.  I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life.  Not a better life, but a different life.

There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times.  There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe.  After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt.  The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not.  I think about this a lot lately.  The fork looms – what will make the difference?  This is the difficult choice so often in life.  Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?

I have always wondered about this.  It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be.  I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next.  In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore.  Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral.  It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family.  Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish.  It may be true that you can never go home again.  Or maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them  – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food. 

“For Your Grandma”

 

On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories

Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,

Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.

Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,

Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,

The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.

I watched her sometimes while she cooked.

Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,

And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs

That were thrown onto the biscuit pan

And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.

In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless

Dough into perfect submission.

If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.

They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.

They must rise, golden and perfect.

They better not be made with Bisquick.

Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.

In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,

Good as money, the bread of life.

The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,

A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.

I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and

I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember

How to make biscuits the way she did.

I do remember her hands.

Wherever she is now,

I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:

We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.

 

And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best.  The key is the lard:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tspn salt

1/3 tspn baking soda

5 tbspns of lard

2 tspns of baking powder

1 cup of buttermilk

1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter

  1. Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
  3. Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
  4. For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
  5. Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
  6. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter.  Enjoy the awesome.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Losing Saint Ricky

This week – from the archives: a story about my father.  This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death.  Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand.  This is how I remember it.

Ricky
Ricky Odum, @ 1971, entering the Air Force
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.

There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.

My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.

I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.

 

But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.

That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then.   The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear.   The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.

A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.

A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.

The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.

There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.

I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.

There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Serially Obsessed

Dear Reader,

Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation.  It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.

Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it.  The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.

There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones.  Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.

Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings

There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her.  According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.

So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work.  It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999.  But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 9.58.00 PM.png
Adnan’s Call Log (from the Serial Website)
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.

The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.

There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.

Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?

The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.

One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.

Number 3: Jay’s Stories

Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.

Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.

One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.

Number 4: Asia McClain

We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it.  She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level.  Things got missed.

The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.

Number 5: Don

If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.

In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been.  But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case.  They stopped pulling.

These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year.  The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.

Why is this story so compelling?  I’ve wondered that.  I don’t even really like crime shows.  Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area.  Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario.  But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth.  We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer.  (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases.  The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.  It could happen to you.  Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.

 

PS – If you want to hear more from Adnan himself, you can preorder Adnan’s Story, written by Rabia Chaudry.

© Ryna May 2016

Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016

 

Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May