Archive | Commentaries

Telling Stories With Strings

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INTRO: We’re all used to hearing stories with words. But commentator Matthew Vann found you don’t always need words to tell them.

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Stories From My Grandfather, Stories From My Homeland

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HOST INTRO: Commentator Tenzin Shakya has been hearing stories about her family’s homeland, Tibet since she was a little girl. She says her grandfather’s stories have shaped how she thinks about Tibet — and its occupation by China.

It was 4 o’clock in the morning when my grandfather, Popo Sonam, awoke me. “It’s time to go for kora,” he said.  Kora is a Buddhist practice of praying and walking in circles, usually around a temple. I got dressed, put on a t-shirt and chupa, the traditional dress that Tibetan people wear.  since I was visiting my grandfather in Nepal, where many of Tibetan elders live, I decided to dress in proper attire. Also to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of old Tibetans starring me down and calling me “inji,” which means foreigner.  Of course as soon as Popo Sonam saw me with the t-shirt underneath my chupa instead of the traditional silk shirt, he insisted that I change. “If you’re going to wear the chupa, wear it right,” he said. “and while you’re at it, go braid your hair,” .

I argued against it. “Popo Sonam, times have changed and you must learn that we are not required to walk around with braids.” Little did I know, that an argument about braids would help me to understand my family’s history.

My family fled Tibet in 1960, a year after China invaded. Five years later, my grandfather traveled back to Tibet. He hoped that he would find it safe to return. Instead, he was captured by Chinese soldiers and forced to work in labor camps for 6 months. He had to plow fields, and clean up rubble left by the war. He had been a farmer in Tibet, so the work didn’t bother him. What really hurt him was being told by a young Chinese soldier to kneel, and remain still as he chopped off my Popo’s long braids. Traditionally, Tibetan men kept their hair in braids, too, wrapped around their head. For Popo Sonam, the braids represented his devotion to a centuries-old cultural tradition. But for the soldier, it represented the “old ways.”

Growing up as a Tibetan refugee, I’d heard much worse stories.  I’ve wept as Tibetan nuns shared their stories of being raped in prison by Chinese soldiers, while monks were forced to watch. They were political prisoners because they demanded freedom.

It’s hard not to resent the Chinese government.

Popo Sonam is a constant reminder of why I am hopeful about the future of Tibet. Popo Sonam never re-grew his braids but he did escape the camps six months later in 1965. And, he did it with the help of a young Buddhist Chinese soldier who empathized with his longing to be reunited with his family.

I’ve tried to visit Tibet twice; both times I was denied entry.  But when I listen to Popo’s stories, I travel. He is a window into a world I may never get to see.  Popo Sonam gives me hope, inspires me with his wisdom and compassion. He always tells me to focus on the good.

He’s old now, and every time I talk to him, he says his time is coming.

I fear his passing. Not only because I would lose my last remaining grandfather, but, because it would mean that the stories would come to an end.

BACK ANNOUNCE: Tenzin Shakya is planning a journey back to Tibet with her grandfather, soon.

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Learning from the Struggle of Survivors

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HOST: Commentator Anna Goldenberg is an Austrian Jew. In the 1950s, her grandparents – holocaust survivors – briefly lived in upstate New York. Now, that Anna is living in New York, she decided to visit the town where they lived to understand why they didn’t stay.


On a cold and bright day in January, I took the train from New York to Poughkeepsie, a small town around 60 miles north of the City.

I tried to imagine how different it must have looked almost sixty years ago when my grandmother came here.

She was 26 when she got there in 1955, as an intern in a local hospital. That’s about my age. But other than that, her life had looked vastly different.

My grandmother was nine years old when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938. And she was only fourteen when they deported her to a concentration camp because of her Jewish origin. The camp was in Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech republic. She spent two years there.

I was lucky, she said, when I asked her how it feels to have survived. She told me that she was once on the list to be transported to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ largest extermination camp.

Getting people on the train took hours, so she lay down in an empty barrack to take a nap. When she woke up, the train to Auschwitz was gone.

The camp was liberated by Russian troops in April 1945. My grandmother returned to Vienna to reunite with her family and study medicine.

I was full of hate, she said, and I wanted to go to Israel. She met my grandfather, a medical student and Holocaust survivor. He didn’t want to go to Israel. But he had a visa to the United States, and in 1955 there was an opening for two medical interns at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

The newlywed couple went there to work because pay was better than in Vienna. They weren’t quite sure how long they would stay.

There was enough food, was the first thing my grandmother said when I asked her about Poughkeepsie. But she discovered there was racial segregation even in upstate New York. People only socialized with members of the same race. One day she was told she couldn’t walk on the street together with a black intern.

I didn’t need that, she said. I’ve had enough of that during the war.

My grandparents returned to Vienna less than a year after they had left.

Growing up in Vienna as one of the only Jewish kids around was just a given for me. I sometimes enjoyed the expression of shock and disbelief that transformed children’s faces when I revealed to them that I didn’t get any Christmas presents.

It was only when I moved to the United States myself last year that I became more aware of my background. When I tell others that I am an Austrian Jew, they always ask about my grandparents. They want to know how my grandparents could forgive a nation.

After I came back from Poughkeepsie, I decided to ask my grandmother that question.

I wasn’t the only one who suffered because of the war, she said. Life afterwards was tough for everyone and we had to work together to survive.

My grandmother forgave, but she never forgot. And neither will I.


Anna’s grandmother, Dr. Helga Feldner-Bustin is coming to New York for her granddaughter’s graduation in May, but will definitely return to Vienna afterwards.

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What Mandela Means to Me

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HOST: Nelson Mandela is an inspirational leader known around the world. Commentator Ntshepeng Motema says for South Africans like her, Mandela is more than just the man who fought against apartheid.

REPORTER: Every time Nelson Mandela goes back to the hospital I cannot help but worry his time has come.  At 94, Mandela, he keeps getting lung infections — complications from the tuberculosis he contracted during his 27 years in jail. During his more recent hospitalization in March, I found myself checking newswires every hour, and calling journalist friends and mother back home, asking, “Any news on the old man?”

For us South Africans, Mandela is not just our former president. He’s a beloved grandfather, a protector, and a symbol of what’s best about our country. We name everything after him. The Mandela Bridge, The Mandela University, The Mandela Children’s fund, The Mandela Soccer Cup. I mean the man’s face is even on our money.

My mother tells me to feel grateful to have grown up in a free South Africa. I was 10 when Mandela became president. Before then, my mother had to travel with her passport everywhere she went. The police would stop her when she went to places reserved for white people. She went to blacks-only schools, blacks-only restaurants and did hard labor, a blacks-only kind of a job.

I didn’t go through any of that. I went to a multi- racial school. I can go to any part of my country with no restrictions. Blacks and whites live side-by-side, in harmony.

Or at least, so it seems on paper. Sadly, almost twenty years on, South Africa remains divided. Racism has left the restaurants, but it’s alive at the dining room table. Behind closed doors, blacks say “White people have such a sense of entitlement. They forget that this is our land, and we could kick them out any time.” And I’ve heard white people say, “Black people are such savages, their government is corrupt, and I’m thinking of moving away.”

And then there’s the economic inequality. Wealth still remains in the hands of the white minority and a small black elite while the rest of the country is poor. Resentment bubbles under the surface and violence threatens to explode. Many fear that once Mandela is gone, his rainbow coalition will fall apart, whites against black, rich against poor. And what scares me is that, these days, we do not have the kind of leaders that can hold the country together.

Mandela may not be with us for much longer. And I would hate if something happened to him while I’m so far from home. I want to be able to hold hands with my countrymen when his time comes. But, then again, I think Mandela would want me to be here, in New York City, taking advantage of the opportunities he spent his life fighting for. So I’ll keep checking the newswires, texting my friends, calling my mom, desperate for the news I hope will never come.


Ntshepeng Motema met Nelson Mandela once. She says she’ll never forget the glow of his smile and the sparkle in his eyes.

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How Not To Travel In Mongolia

How Not To Travel In Mongolia

Train in Ulaanbaatar

: The train at the Ulaanbaatar station in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Commentator Sonia Paul should have ridden it Orkhon her first day in Mongolia, Aug. 2010. (Sonia Paul/Uptown Radio)

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HOST: Traveling has its ups and downs. When commentator Sonia Paul took a three-week trip to Mongolia to discover the country’s natural beauty, she found that sometimes all you can do is count on the kindness of strangers — even if it leads you astray.

PAUL: It was the summer of 2010, and I was traveling by myself in Mongolia — my first big solo traveling trip. I was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, and on my way to a ranch in a place called Orkhon. I showed the woman supervising the platform at the train station my ticket. She shook her head. No, no, not this train.

Are you sure? I asked. I had planned the trip fairly meticulously. But she waved me off.

The sun set and departure time neared. I went back to the train woman. I pointed at the train’s name on the ticket, gestured toward the green train in front of us, gave the thumbs up sign and nodded. And of course I flashed my pearly whites.

She glared back at me and shook her head. Next one.

I heard someone hollering in English and discovered it was a boy selling peanuts on the platform. I made my way over, bought a bag and made small talk with him about my travels to Orkhon.

Orkhon? His ears perked up. No, no! he said. That’s your train! And he pointed to the train just as it was pulling away.

I nearly dropped my bag of peanuts. It was the last train of the day to my destination. And it was only my first day in Mongolia. How was I ever supposed to survive three weeks by myself?

Before I knew it, a few tears rolled down my cheeks.

I got a room for the night at a hostel near the station, and asked a girl who worked there to buy me my seven-dollar replacement ticket to Orkhon. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get lost.

Don’t worry, Sonia, she said when I finally got on the train the next day. She promised to call the ranch owner in Orkhon to tell him I was coming.

On the train, I sat next to a Mongolian woman who spoke English with a Russian accent. She nodded encouragingly when I showed her my ticket — Orkhon. My stop too, she said. Her smile was comforting.

When we arrived in Orkhon, she quickly disappeared. I started searching for a call center where I could dial the ranch owner. But then a girl about my age wearing Dior sunglasses called out to me.

You lost? Her English had a Russian accent too. I have a cellphone, she said.

I was grateful for the offer and quickly dialed the ranch owner.

You’re where? he said when he answered the phone.


And you just got off?


Do you realize you’re four and a half hours away from where you should be?!


It turns out Mongolia has many locations that share the same name. And there are at least two places called Orkhon. The girl from the hostel had bought me a ticket to the wrong Orkhon.

What I needed to do was get to the right Orkhon. I had no time to feel sorry for myself. The Dior girl was getting in a cab with her brothers. I quickly explained my situation. With her sunglasses, English skills and cellphone, she had become my bodyguard in a span of five minutes.

She nodded intently and told me to join them in the cab. They could get me where I needed to go.

What else could I do? I squished in the backseat. I decided things just had to turn out fine. We peeled away from the station, and I let myself marvel at the vast land and open sky surrounding me.

HOST: Sonia eventually got herself to the ranch at the right Orkhon. She still gets lost sometimes, but she always manages to find her way back.

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Learning The Real Lesson Of A Wedding

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HOST: Jessica Gould got married twice in one year. And she says it took two ceremonies to understand what a wedding is all about.

NARR: Michael proposed in early spring 2009. It was sunset, at the water’s edge in Annapolis Maryland. We kissed and walked the cobble stone streets, hand in hand, peaceful and in love. We knew just what we wanted. A long engagement of about a year and a half with a simple wedding, maybe about 30 people, sometime in the fall.

But my parents had their own ideas. My dad suggested getting hitched at the Harvard Club. My mom filled an accordion file with ads for Amsala dresses, Tiffany wedding bands, All Clad cookware and fine china. It seemed like every day she had a new dish to discuss, but I wasn’t interested. Finally I told her that if she mentioned china one more time, I’d go there and never come back.

You see, Michael and I considered ourselves to be a pretty low-maintenance couple. Our ideal evening involves eating takeout and watching the Bachelor. And yet, as the months wore on, we found ourselves mired in debates over bands versus DJs and chocolate instead of red velvet cake. The guest list ballooned and so did our budget. By winter we had put down money on an old mansion outside D.C. and hired a caterer. We were expecting about 150 guests in October.

Then my grandmother, Nanny found out she had cancer. Nanny and I spoke nearly every day, and she was the first to embrace Michael as part of our family. If she was going to see us get married, we had to do it fast. So the arguments about cake and cutlery melted away as the family swung into action. We began to plan a small pre-wedding wedding, for close relatives, in my uncle’s backyard.

It was a damp day in late April when Nanny and I went to get our hair done by the man who had styled her faux blond bouffant for more than 25 years. Then I slipped on the simple white dress I bought at J. Crew, linked arms with my parents and walked across the grass to meet my husband. Nanny’s 90 year-old friend Jake played a Bach solo on the viola. Nanny read a sonnet by Shakespeare: Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Michael and I promised to love each other, in success and failure, illness and health.

Under a small tent on the patio, we drank champagne and sunk our forks into my mother’s homemade blueberry pie. Nanny said she had never been happier or felt better. Maybe her doctors were wrong and she’d make it to the big wedding in October after all. But just three days later, she had a heart attack. And a month later she was gone. After that, there were no more fights over table cards and cake flavors. I didn’t register for fine china and inherited Nanny’s platters instead. And I began to embrace the October wedding as a celebration of and for family and friends.

When Michael and I got engaged in Annapolis four years ago, I thought our wedding was supposed to be about us, our love, our tastes and preferences. But what I learned along the way is that weddings — and even marriages — aren’t just about the couple. They’re about family — the family that came before, the family you build, and the family you leave behind. And that’s the most romantic thing of all.

HOST: Jessica Gould and Michael Pellegrino will celebrate their third anniversary next week. They aren’t planning another wedding. But they haven’t ruled it out.

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Jazz Music Finds Love Among The Younger Generation

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Jazz almost seems like a prehistoric form of music, especially for twenty-somethings. But Commentator Lance Dixon discovered he had been a fan since childhood. He just didn’t realize it.


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A Moment of Silence in the Big Apple

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Life is usually fast-paced and exciting in the city that never sleeps. But commentator Emily Jones had a recent reminder, we could all use a break sometimes.

My iPod died on the subway a couple weeks ago. I didn’t have a book or a newspaper, and my phone doesn’t work down there. Sit still for half an hour with no entertainment? This never happens. I’m an obsessive multitasker. I usually listen to music and send emails just walking place to place.

But, ok. I settle in with a deep breath. (deep breath) I start noticing details around me. A hand on a pole. The pattern on a kindle case. A pair of boots. (deep breath). I don’t focus on anything specific. I couldn’t do anything about it right now anyway. So I let my brain settle in to a freeform wander, thought fragments floating past, undirected. (deep breath). Huh. I know this feeling.

I spent eight years in Quaker school, from fifth grade through high school. Mostly the school valued a weird mix of treating everyone equally and fiercely competing. But Quaker school also meant attending meeting for worship: for a full 45 minutes, we sat together in complete silence.

The idea is silent worship and reflection. Pray if you like. Stand up and speak if the spirit moves you – a rare occasion. For a roomful of ten and twelve year olds? Not so much. A friend and I learned the sign language alphabet so we could gossip about boys during meeting and point out who was fighting falling asleep. Most of meeting in middle school was trying to avoid the terrifying glare of certain teachers.

In eighth or ninth grade, it became cool to lie and say you actually really valued meeting. It was a way to sound more grown-up and intellectual, like correcting people’s grammar or talking about reading books that weren’t assigned in English class. In reality at that point most of us were studying the ceiling fan.

But the false insight gradually became real. Maybe because high school got hard. Papers grew longer, college applications loomed, and sports practice ate up all our free time. It started to feel really great to tune everything out for a while.

Toward the end of school, as we neared graduation, I started to put Quaker meeting on the list of things I’d miss, like friends and home and life as I knew it. When a former classmate died in an accident that summer I felt a desperate longing for meeting – it seemed like the only way I could process the loss. And I wasn’t alone: somebody sent out a mass text message and soon we gathered in a park to share silence and remember our friend.

So my little tech break on the subway got me thinking: I needed that restful silence to get through high school? Now I live in a city literally known for never taking a break. We walk so fast it frightens tourists, and smartphones ensure we’re always on. Try sitting still for a minute: this city won’t let you.

Still, I’m determined to try. I’ve had this reminder of how, with a little silence, you’re free to explore the little channels of thought that crowd your mind static most of the time to distract you. Breathe a little air into them and they fan themselves out so you can find them. It’s a relief to let your brain just wander. If something matters, it rises to the top. Everything else just washes on by and, for a few minutes, you’re still.


Emily would like to end this segment with a moment of silence. (paaaaause) But who are we kidding? This is New York.

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Bullies Make the Biggest Babies

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Commentator Christie Thorne has spent every summer of her life at her family’s cabin on Long Lake in rural Wisconsin. That’s where she learned that sometimes bullies are the biggest cry babies of all.


When I was a kid there was this boy named Kevin that was just a few years older than me. His family has a place further down the lake. And I hated him. Every summer I’d worry about what kind of evil prank he was going to pull on me…because it did happen every summer. I had attempted revenge in the past, but my execution was never quite as good as I had conjured up in my head. Mostly failures, to be frank.

One July, my three best friends from back in Chicago were visiting me for the week. I could usually expect one – maybe two – good pranks from Kevin every summer. But this week it was different – every night it was something new. I’m talking stink bombs, dead fish and stolen underwear. And one night after a great night of card games my friends and I were making our way up a path to the main cabin to go to sleep. Kevin jumped out of the woods wearing a Michael Myers mask and fired up a chainsaw. He scared the crap out of us…even though I’m fairly certain that there’s not a chainsaw in the movie Halloween.

This time Kevin went too far. And I wanted him to know. So later that night, my little brother and I led the small pack of our friends through the dark woods with clunky flashlights to Kevin’s house, where his parents were sleeping. The absence of Kevin’s red four-wheeler let us know that he wasn’t home. And since our posse of fourteen-year-olds was probably the most dangerous thing on the lake that night, the door to the house was unlocked.

 Kevin’s house had a big porch that wrapped all the way around it. So, we decided to start moving everything from the porch onto their front yard. EVERYTHING. Including the fishing poles hanging on the wall and the rug on the floor. And then, as if it were meant to be, I saw the Michael Myers mask hanging on a hook among some coats and helmets. I didn’t put Michael out on the lawn. Oh no. I took him as my hostage.

We all ran back through the woods to our cabin, so high on adrenaline that we didn’t even need our flash lights. We turned out the lights at the house and hid giggling on the dark porch waiting for a reaction. We’d be able to hear Kevin’s four-wheeler approach. And it did. And man, was he pissed. He did a little ranting and then went on his way. We FINALLY got him back!

When I woke up the next morning, it came to me. We needed to take the prank one step farther. So we affixed Michael to the top of an old broomstick – or maybe it was a rake – and my Dad helped us attach it to the back of our boat. And so, for the whole next day, as we were out and about on the lake, we would pass Kevin and wave. Judging by his face, he got the memo.

Later that evening, as we were enjoying the last 45 minutes of sunlight in the water, I saw my Dad heading down to the dock with Kevin’s mom. Yikes. She wasn’t mad, but she did say:

“I told Kevin, don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, ya know. So he won’t be botherin’ ya anymore. But he’d really like his mask back.”

My Dad winked at me and smiled. I ran to grab the mask and returned it to Kevin’s mom.

And man, I couldn’t believe after all that he sent his mother over here instead of trying to get the mask back himself. But I did realize that the one who doesn’t tattle always comes out on top. I can’t wait to tell my kids that, some day.


Christie Thorne hasn’t been a target of Kevin’s pranks since then. But should he strike again, he should be afraid. Very afraid.


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Awkward, Awkward Love

HOST INTRO: We’ve all had our share of unrequited love and dating awkwardness. There was a moment when commentator Amber Binion thought all that was over.

I’ve never been good at dating. One time a guy broke up with me while I was
laughing hysterically at my favorite cartoon. He just looked over and said, “I don’
t think this is going to work.” Another time, I got a threatening call from a girl
who said she was the girlfriend of a guy I had been going out with. Actually that
happened twice. It’s been a struggle.

There was this guy in high school that I had a huge crush on. He was tall and lean
with movie star good looks and was a couple of years older than me. Imagine my
excitement when I ran into him at a bar. Now he worked as an elementary school
teacher. How dreamy, he cared about educating young minds and stuff like that. I
just knew seeing him again was a sign.

He came up to me smiling, “Amber!” he said.

He remembered me! This was perfect. We talked about high school. We talked about
our life goals. We talked for hours. All in this crowded loud bar. He must really like
me, I thought. He even introduced himself to my two girlfriends. Who of course, gave
me thumbs up and silly winks to show their approval when he wasn’t looking. One
of my friends even pulled me to the side and joked that I found my next boyfriend.

The night was winding down, and he walked up to me at the bar. He looked over
with a shy grin and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”

This is it! I thought. The heavens opened, a divine light shined on me, and a choir of
angels sang. I stayed calm; I flipped my hair and smiled coyly. “No.”

“Good,” he said. “Because my roommate thinks you’re cute.”

My jaw dropped, the singing angels came to a screeching halt. He gestured to his
roommate standing in the corner who smiled and waved awkwardly. I just said, “Uh,
I’m fine.” And slowly backed away. I grabbed my friends and high tailed it out of

In the words of the great philosopher, Albus Dumbledore, “Oh to be young and feel
love’s keen sting.”

I haven’t seen him since. But of course my friends love to remind me. “Amber,
remember that time you thought you were in love for 5 seconds?” Yeah… I do.
Thanks, guys.

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The Lows of Stand-Up Comedy

HOST INTRO: Stand-up comedy has perhaps more lows than highs. With a job like that, you need friends – if for nothing else to drag them along for the ride. Commentator Tony Maglio shares the story of the worst show ever.

Stand-up comedy is the loneliest gig in the world. It’s just you, on stage, alone, with
a microphone, a stand, and for some reason, always a stool. Yes, there’s a crowd, but
you can’t see them through the blinding stage lights. You only know they’re there if
they laugh. Or groan.

It’s not a coincidence that most comedians are messed up. We’re depressed. We
have anxiety. We were often bullied or come from unhappy homes. We developed a
sense of humor instead of thick skin. We’re different than you.

That’s why comics have to be friends with other comics. No one else can really relate
to our feeling of isolation. You drive to a show alone. You perform alone. And you go
home alone. We don’t get a ton of chicks.

I met Pat and Mike at the Stress Factory Comedy Club. Pat was a natural showman
and friendly with everybody. Mike was an imposing jerk who was mad at the world.
I liked them both immediately.

The three of us started getting booked as a group from Philly to New York to D.C.
and Pittsburgh. We shared more Days Inn beds than your average prostitute. We
did clubs, colleges, bars, restaurants. Shows at halls, fundraisers at strange venues.
In stand-up you’ll perform in places you never even thought a show could be held.
One night I watched my two pals do sets at a bagel store. Even I drew the line

I once took a job opening for a Spin Doctors concert. That would have been great if
it were 1993. It was 2006. The show ended in disaster as the promoter and the club
owner got into a fight and the cops were called before the headliners even hit the
stage. For some reason I gave the promoter another chance, but this time, I dragged
my two best friends along.

The gig was at a bar called “Da Vinci’s Pub” in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. But
considering the clientele, there has never been a less appropriate name for a town.
Perhaps GED-ville would have rung truer.

When we reached the pub it was clear that no one was expecting us. The patrons
were there to booze and watch the NBA game.

But to get paid, we had to go through the motions. Mike went first. Nobody turned
to face the stage or pay attention. The TV volume was still at full blast — it was a
disaster. Mike quickly got into it with a heckler at the bar that hadn’t signed up
for a comedy show. Curbing his ample temper and not wanting to burn my bridge,
Mike brought me up. I didn’t care about the bridge. I spent my time telling the
rowdy, disrespectful crowd exactly what I thought of them. It wasn’t nice and it isn’t
appropriate for public radio. Tension grey thick with big, good ol’ boys that likely
had guns and game hounds in their pick-up trucks outside.

There was just one problem; Pat still had to close the show. God Bless Pat. He
actually tried to do material. He got no laughs, but may have saved a few lives. We
got out of there as fast as possible.

We could’ve been miserable the whole ride home. My friends could’ve blamed me
for a terrible night. But instead we just laughed and made fun of everyone. That’s
what comics do. That’s what friends are for. I quit stand-up shortly after that night.

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A Rainbow In My Coffee

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HOST INTRO: What’s it like to be a faceless employee working at one of the world’s biggest chains? Commentator Alexandra Hall remembers the time she tried to add some color to your morning coffee.

My Starbucks work station was a little cubby- sized counter right inside the entrance to Target- a welcoming gesture to customers who need a java chip frappacino while they browse toothpaste and packets of shirts.

Starbucks is highly efficient. Every drink is made as if on a GM assembly line. But instead of mufflers, fenders, and airbags we used pre-measured packets of milk and espresso. One ingredient that Starbucks does make is whipped cream. Throughout the day, baristas fill stainless steel canisters with heavy whipping cream and vanilla syrup. A little metal bullet filled with carbon dioxide on the lid, plus a good shake, makes it ready for topping a beverage. Unlike transparent vanilla, Starbucks’ raspberry syrup is a deep red. Swapping one for the other, I started making pink whipped cream instead of white. Customers loved it. I expected my manager to be impressed. Instead, she said, “That’s not what Starbucks wants.”

I was leaving to college anyway, so on my last night on the job, I decided to do something about Starbucks’ no color, no creativity policy. My plan was to drop food coloring into each canister of the next day’s batch of whipped cream. I would leave the first three or four white so that when they discovered my rainbow garnish, they would be too busy not to use it.

That night I added 5 drops of blue to one canister. 6 drops of green to another right beside it. I was giddy with excitement. I imagined the look on my boss’s face when she served a thrilled customer their grande iced mocha with extra purple whipped cream. She would probably have to call in the CEO of Starbucks so they could strategize about adding multi-colored whipped cream to the menu.

Unfortunately that’s not the way it worked out. Just before leaving, a coworker who was in on my plan ran in. He told me that the manager of Target had discovered my plan and that I should get out of the store quick. I completely panicked. I grabbed my stuff and booked it to the parking lot. A security guard started chasing me- probably just because he saw a person running. He yelled for me to stop, but I didn’t. I jumped in my car and took off.

For weeks, Target called my house and left messages. This message was for Alexandra Hall. They needed me to come in. There was something about  “tampering with food.” I held the cordless phone at arms length, whisper screaming to my mom.
“What if they call the cops?” I asked.
“For whipped cream? No” she said.
Every day I thought the FBI was seconds away from banging down the door. I even considered covering my license plate with a plastic bag. At 18, the wrath of Target was the end of my world.

That summer after high school, I wanted pink whipped cream to be my enduring legacy to Starbucks. But I ended up feeling too scared to leave the house. It turns out Starbucks was too big for my small plans. Still, I’m glad that I tried. And even happier that I didn’t end up in jail.

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Discovering My Father’s Legacy

Discovering My Father’s Legacy

Ave Maria Oratory nave

The nave of the Ave Maria Oratory in Florida. (Jeff Tyson/Uptown Radio)

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Jeff Tyson’s father spent much of his career as an engineer designing ordinary structures.

But after he died at age 50, Jeff saw that his dad had built something timeless and extraordinary.

Narration time (2:49)

I rarely asked my dad about his job. He worked long hours, but when he came home he wouldn’t talk about it with me and my sister. He knew we were more interested in our band concerts and soccer games. What I did know was that he was a structural engineer. He designed common necessities, like trusses for highway bridges, and parking garages. Sometimes he would design the steeples of local churches. I knew he was good at his job, and I was always proud of

what he did, but I wasn’t very interested in what I knew about his work. And he didn’t mind. He would smile when I told him I dreamed of being an archeologist digging up lost treasures, not working with rulers, triangle tools and calculators the way he did. We laughed about our differences.

When I was in middle school, my dad took a job offer from a company two hours away from where we lived. All I really understood at the time was that he took the new job because of a project the company was planning to work on—building a church in Florida or something like that. For five years he commuted two hours each way to and from work. He often wouldn’t come home at night. Moving closer to his new job would have been a lot more convenient, but he worried about forcing me to change schools. I could see his devotion through the sacrifices he made, but during those five years, I asked him more about the audio books he would listen to on his drive than I would about his work once he got to the office.

When I was 18, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He went through one major surgery, and two years of painful treatments. Eventually he stopped going to work, and before he passed away, my mom, my sister and I spent as much time with him as we could. After his funeral, my dad’s company got the three of us plane tickets to Florida, to see the result of this project my dad had completed shortly before he died—this church he had built over the course of five years.

It was one year later when we hopped on a plane to Naples Florida and drove to the Ave Maria Oratory. The pictures we’d seen were impressive, but they didn’t do justice to what we saw in person. My dad had built a Cathedral, more or less,– a 27,000 square foot structure with steel beams intertwining in arches within a towering nave. It won an award for engineering innovation, and a stone plaque near the entrance read, “In Memory of Thomas R. Tyson, Structural Engineer of the Oratory.” In the middle ages, a feat like this was the height of human accomplishment and ingenuity. I realized my dad had built something that people would be able to admire for centuries.

As I walked under the beams my dad had engineered, I tried to picture him laboring over drawings or consulting with architects before a two hour commute back home. I longed to go back to one of those days, so I could wait for him to pull his car into the driveway, sit him down at our kitchen table and ask him all about his day. I’d ask him detailed questions, the way a journalist would, and I wouldn’t let him sleep until he told me everything.

Back announce: Jeff plans to revisit the Ave Maria Oratory, and would go back every year if he could. (5

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Facing the Fear of Death, and Preparing For the Future

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HOST: Many people fear death. But what do you when the fear is so strong it keeps you from helping your loved ones cope with loss? After the death of his grandfather last month, our Max Rosenthal had to tackle that question…and his wish to live up to his father’s example:

When my grandmother died nine years ago, I nearly skipped her service, I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as a dead body. I was 20 years old – in college, and technically an adult. Yet suddenly, I was a freaked out kid again, thinking of mummies in ancient Egypt and wondering if my grandmother was going to come alive.

When I arrived at the synagogue for her service, I was supposed to sit at the front with my family. But I could only stand near the back, sweating and softly cursing. I finally took a seat nearby with a family friend, mortified —  and terrified — all at once.

What I remember most was looking at my father. He was there next to her coffin, as he was supposed to be, as I was supposed to be. He grieved with his brothers and, when the time came, lifted her coffin with them, walking my grandmother’s body up the aisle of the synagogue. I felt ashamed not be with him, paralyzed by what I knew was an irrational fear.

Watching him made me think of a day  –  one I hope is still far in my future – when my father will die. And then, I won’t be able to hide in the corner.

My guilt about it never really went away. I finished college, I joined the Army, and started to live my own life. And the further I got from my parents, the more I realized just how much I owed them. Years of work, constant support and countless thousands of dollars: I was haunted by the thought that I might not step up for them as they had for me. That image of my dad at the funeral stuck in my head. Next time, I promised myself, I’d do better.

But then my dad called last month to tell me his father had died. Despite my resolve, I felt the panic immediately well up. A few days later, I was back at the same synagogue with the same empty hearse out front, making that same nervous walk across the lobby. The coffin’s plain wood was more white than last time; the people in the seats more gray. Otherwise nothing had changed, and that seemed to include me.

I managed to sit up front this time, but I couldn’t stop staring at the coffin. My relatives brushed up against it when they walked past to deliver their eulogies, and it gave me chills. I ran my eyes over the grains of the plain wood, and I started to notice some small gaps in the lid. I pictured it coming apart in my hands, crashing to the floor, sending me running in a panic.

But suddenly I was in the aisle with my cousins, right where my father had stood nine years before. My grandfather was wheeled between us, and the rabbi spoke in Hebrew while I took the coffin’s handle. I touched it lightly as possible at first, but my grip turned stronger as we approached the hearse.

At the cemetery, we hoisted his coffin out of the car and carried him to the grave. I fixed my eyes on the ground, trying not to listen for eerie bumps from inside the box. But it seemed almost like a reflex by then. I was shocked by how quickly my fear had fled. We laid the coffin on the hoist and the pallbearers stood back with our relatives. And just like that, it was over.

I watched my father’s face as we went through the service. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s, and by the last year of his life his memory was completely gone. But at least once a week, my father made the hour-long trip to be with him, making meals and taking drives and talking for hours with a man who could barely speak.

Until the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I hadn’t known if I’d be able to be that kind of son to my father. Now I was free of that fear, too.

BACK ANNOUNCE: That was our commentator, Max Rosenthal.


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Sweating Away Cultural Differences in a Russian Banya

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Commentator Katherine Jacobsen spent a year in Russia, hoping to perfect the difficult language. On a weekend trip, she discovered that it wasn’t the language that would be the most difficult thing to understand.


Our trip started at sunrise– I was heading out of Moscow with a dozen journalists I’d never met before. The door slid shut– we were off on an all-expenses paid tour of a Russian resort town.

In the van, we introduced ourselves,… two men, ten women in all. I gave the Russian version of my name, Katia, then I sat there, afraid to speak. I was so tired of being the American everywhere I went. No matter what I did, how good my accent was, or what clothes I wore, everyone could always tell that I was a foreigner. And I hated it.

Nearly five hours later, we arrived at the resort. We ate lunch, checked out the grounds and then prepared for the highlight of the trip– the banya.

A banya is a Russian sauna in the extreme. You alternate between a 200 degree steam room and jumping in an icy cold pool. Oh, and you’re naked most of the time.

It’s the ultimate Russian experience– they say that suffering makes you stronger, that it’s purifying… I wasn’t convinced.

Once we got there, we stripped– underwear, pants and tops of all sizes lined the room’s perimeter– we wrapped ourselves in white sheets and went in.
The steam seeped into my lungs and I started coughing. The other women started laughing.

One middle aged woman said: Oh, I remember my first banya trip when I was six… I hated it. But, in the end, the suffering feels kind of good, she said.

I looked at her quizzically.

It’s Russian, she said, you wouldn’t understand.

We sat and sweated– really sweated– thick beads of salty liquid poured out of my skin. Stories filled the banya– love, frustrations, hopes– and I began to forget that I was an outsider. Through the sheets, the sagging and svelte figures of strangers’ bodies around me started to feel familiar.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went outside and jumped into the pool.

I screamed as I plunged and gasped for air when I sprung to the surface. It was exhilarating, an electric shock running through my body.

Speaking Russian was no longer a problem– there were no words in English to describe what was going on…

After an hour, an obese woman in a muumuu came in with her husband. They were carrying a bucket with birch branches. We took turns going back into the banya to be beaten.

I was terrified and fumbled untying my sheet.

Don’t worry, I’ve seen it all, the old woman told me.

I lay down. The couple dipped their branches into boiling water, hitting us soft at first a ratatat, then harder, trashing. The old woman clucked at me as she hit my white Western skin.

Then, before I knew it, it was over.

The old woman asked me, what did our little American think? before she doused me in ice cold water.

I grinned stupidly, hyper aware of blood coursing through my veins. It felt… good.

As I tried to grab a towel, the old woman pushed me outside.

I protested. It was too cold on the street- and my thighs were too big, too American.

But the woman nudged me out the door.

This is Russia, she said.

As I felt the cool breeze on my naked skin and looked at a sky filled with a million stars, I felt surprisingly grounded. 5,000 miles from home, I felt like I belonged. I had sweated away the American, and, for a night, for a moment, became Russian.

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Meeting My Revolutionary Father-In-Law

Meeting My Revolutionary Father-In-Law

Colombia Protest M19 Flag

A student waves a flag of the demobilized rebel group M-19 during a 2011 march. The M-19 movement was born as a political movement after an alleged electoral fraud in 1970, turned into an armed movement and disappeared in mid-1990. (Fernando Vergara/AP Photo)

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HOST: No family ritual is more complicated than meeting the in-laws, especially when one of them used to be a Colombian guerrilla. Camilo Vargas remembers the family secrets that surfaced when he met his husband’s.

VARGAS: My husband and I come from totally different worlds. I grew up in a quiet little suburb in Bogota. I went to Catholic school and I would frequently slam the doors at my conservative parents. In my teenage rebellion, I began to fantasize about revolutionary movements that had disappeared long before I was born. I read every book and saw every documentary I could find about the M-19. It was a Colombian guerrilla group formed in the seventies by student revolutionaries; they fought against the corrupt Colombian establishment. This obsession of mine only fueled the bitter ideological battles with my mom and dad. Deep into my college years, I still idealized everything that stood against my own upbringing.

So imagine my surprise when Luis told me on our first date that he was the son of a former M-19 guerrilla. But he knew almost nothing else about his father. He didn’t even know how his parents had met. His mother was a retired phone operator and union leader. She raised him on her own in a beautiful town in the coffee growing regions of Colombia. Luis was my revolutionary prince charming; straight out of the books I had read a few years back.

It took almost three years before I finally met Luis’s dad at a family dinner. Luis and I were really anxious that night. I would finally get to meet my M-19 father-in-law. But Luis was nervous for very different reasons. We sat down at the family table; his dad sat in front of me and rarely looked away from his plate. We ate in almost complete silence. By the end of our very informal chicken stew nothing but small talk dominated the table. Suddenly, I gave into my journalistic impulses, and politely asked him about leaving prison after the 1982 amnesty. He stared at me with his pale green eyes wide open. “I’ve always been fascinated by the M,” I explained, “And I’d like to know more.” He began telling the story about the time when he desperately needed a hideout after a strike on a military base in Luis’s hometown. He went to the local phone office and called home to find the military had raided his house and he had nowhere to go. When he went to pay for the call a known M-19 sympathizer stood at the other side of the counter: Luis’s mother. She handed the revolutionary his change along with a key to her apartment, and it became the safe haven where he stayed for five months. As Luis heard the story, he gently held my hand under the table and smiled as his eyes teared up. For the first time, his dad had told him the story of where he came from. In the end, to everyone’s astonishment, our conversation had gone on for almost two hours

That night, Luis was nervous because he had never had a meaningful conversation with his father about, pretty much anything. After the M19 demobilized in the 1990s Luis rarely saw him. When he was still a boy there were days he’d wait endlessly on his living-room couch, looking out the window for a hero that never showed up. The hero I had romanticized in my rebellious youth had left a scar in my husband’s almost perfect childhood. But it was a childhood he now understood a little more.

BACK ANNOUNCE: Camilo will see both his families again when he returns to Colombia for the summer.

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My Voice Of Failure

Ben Bradford is no Pavarotti (AP Photo/Paul Valesco)

“Man of La Mancha” is the musical adapted from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, about the deluded hero who charges windmills on horseback. Commentator Ben Bradford feels for the Don–he has his own windmill.

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Student Debt on the Mind of One Graduate

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HOST INTRO:  Next week the people behind your favorite voices at Uptown Radio will graduate. For all of us, a diploma from Columbia means the opportunity to go onto bigger things in journalism. Commentator Acacia Squires is realizing this also means big debt.

SQUIRES: I was twenty-five and I’d just been promoted. I had a life insurance policy, and a 401K. I was living in Los Angeles and life seemed .. great. But I was getting restless.

It was late 2010, the economy was still in the toilet, and then… I quit my job.

I decided to get out of the yuck and muck of LA and head back to school.

So I took out a loan. Well, three loans. Totaling 65 thousand dollars, the largest loan at 7.9 percent interest. It didn’t seem all that insane to me at the time.

Come August of last year when the sticky summer wore off and classes began, it was payday. My loan servicer, Nelnet, dropped a heavy sum into my bank account.

It didn’t feel any different from the cash I’d made at work. Money was money, so I just continued with life as usual. Dinner? Yeah! Drinks? Of course! Shopping? For sure!

One night I slumped home from school really late, and grabbed the mail on the way in. There was another letter from Nelnet. I figured they were asking me to “like” them on Facebook again, so I ripped open the envelope without a second thought.

And there it was in black and white, staring me straight in the face. They’d been kind enough to estimate my total repayment with interest.

One. hundred. thousand. dollars… for my three loans over ten years. I’d be writing checks to Nelnet for eight hundred and fifty dollars every month for the next decade.

My jaw must have dropped. I put the letter down and crawled into bed. I tried not to think about it.

Then I realized I wasn’t alone under the heavy cost of school. It was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and on the cover of magazines, congress was debating it – student loan debt was approaching a trillion dollars in the US. They’re even occupying student debt now.

With graduate school interest rates slightly below eight percent, and the unemployment rate, slightly above eight percent, something has got to give.

Reporters like to cite one fact over and over again. For the first time in history, student debt exceeds credit card debt. It makes sense considering people don’t normally charge sixty-five thousand dollars to their MasterCard.

So if you asked me if all the money was worth it, I’d have to consider the long nights, and the early mornings… and all of the stress. Then I’d remember my few precious successes, and celebrating with friends at the bar afterwards. And even if those drinks did come at seven point nine percent interest, I’d say, yeah, I think it’s worth it.

BACKANNOUNCE: Acacia will make her first eight hundred and fifty dollar payment in November, but tonight she’s buying the drinks.

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