Being an American living in England there are a few days throughout the year that send a pang of homesickness through me and the 4th of July is one of those days. I’m not a gloating American and in a lot of ways my American edges have been smoothed down from my years spent in Europe and the UK, but on this particular day I have an awkward desire to let everyone know that I’m a proud, stars and stripes bearing citizen of the US of A. So, in honor of my fellow Americans, our expansive, beautiful country, and the loud, sparkly celebrations of Independence Day, we’ve dedicated Beyond the Headlines to you!
Having lived abroad in Istanbul and now London, I know a lot about our reputation over here, which even at the very best of times is far from clean. I know all the nicknames Americans get when they talk too loud on the underground, or when they insist on teaching Brits about Britain, or when our politicians make absolute fools of themselves. Most of the time I agree with all these things, Americans drive me nuts. And even more infuriating is the fact that most of the things I despise about my homeland are the same things I love: The polarized politics and the tooth and nail fights between the two sides, the boisterousness, the work ethic, the childlike optimism and excitement about relatively small things, the shoot-for-the-moon-yes-we-can mentality, the stubbornness, the eccentricity, the extremism, the excess (I hate to admit it, but I look forward to walking through Target and Walmart whenever I visit home and I usually get there by driving a ridiculously large SUV).
When planning to do this post on America and all its glory, I had a hard time working out how to use this limited space to celebrate all these annoying but beautifully American qualities that I find quite elusive on this side of the pond. And then I went to listen to my favorite radio show/podcast to relieve this bout of homesickness and it was obvious. These guys do it every single week of the year.
This American Life is a weekly radio show that celebrates all that is unique, ridiculous, human, brilliant, funny, and surprising about America. It’s an hour-long show that has a different theme each week (for example “Own Worst Enemy” or “Last Man Standing”) and a handful of stories around each theme are told by brilliant presenters and the subjects of the stories. It’s true, it’s human, and it’s totally addictive.
“We sometimes think of our program as a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries. A public radio show for people who don’t necessarily care for public radio.”
This American Life is, without a doubt, one of the inspirations for Boat Magazine, in fact writing about it here seems quite sacrilegious. Instead of sitting in an ivory tower, it goes out there and listens to people, real people, even the unknowns in some far-flung state that we all but forget exists. (I grew up in Iowa, I know all about this.) Americans have a reputation for being very good at talking, what This American Life does really well is listen. You get to hear people you wouldn’t normally expect to hear on the radio which is right at the heart of Boat Magazine – give a platform, even a small one, to those who don’t normally get to talk. I’ve been a fan and a listener of This American life for a long time now and below I’ve listed a few of my favorite shows over the course of the years I’ve been a (massive) fan.
What could be more American than the idea of a mid-life crisis? In Episode 402: Save the Day, James Spring was two months away from his 40th birthday and when he realized that his life was unremarkable in almost every way, he decided he wanted to do something that would make a difference. With a past in moving drugs across the Mexican border, he knew the lay of the land and so decided to set out looking for a couple, meth users, who’d killed their landlord, kidnapped their own daughter from the grandparents who’d been given legal custody, and gone on the run (along with their two month old baby girl with Down syndrome). How did he decide to go after them? He Google searched “Baja missing” and a news article about this couple was the first result. You’ll have to listen to the full story (along with the others around this theme). It’s genuinely incredible.
In New York City the superintendent of your apartment building looks after the property, shovels the snow in the winter, fixes your broken showerhead, and normally tells the best stories about the streets (and buildings) of New York you could ever hope to hear. In Episode 323: The Super, Jack Hitt finds himself a bit further down a road than perhaps he expected to get. It was the 1980s and rent prices were sky high and climbing. He organized a ‘rent strike’ with other tenants and gets into a predicament with his super that he didn’t anticipate. This episode is so New York and it makes me long for my shoebox apartments, crazy neighbors, and totally dodgy supers.
I still, after years of first listening to it, replay Episode 199: House on Loon Lake over in my head. It’s a story about a group of boys who find and break into an abandoned house in New Hampshire. The mystery around the family who used to live there and what caused them to leave so suddenly is completely gripping.
Episode 165: Americans in Paris – David Sedaris on living in Paris, avoiding the Louvre, and his favorite spots in the City of Lights.
Episode 423: The Invention of Money – a topic that usually does my head in no matter how hard I try to understand it – money – is told in a completely fascinating and human way.
Episode 462: Own Worst Enemy – a star baseball player who loses his game, has a disease which is attributed to athletes losing their game named after him, and is now an expert on the subject AND a story about a Christian ministry to help gay people ‘overcome’ their sexuality that ends up changing more than they bargained for.
By Erin Spens