It's All Things Considered
Susan Stamberg was the first woman to anchor a national news broadcast, NPR's All Things Considered. While her new book Talk details twenty years of her work, we bet you won't find this episode in there...
Susan Stamberg wasn't interested. At least her producer wasn't interested. National Public Radio has an 800 number in Washington. "I'm sure your work is valuable," the woman--the producer--told me, "but--"
"What about the genius grant?" I asked.
"Look," she said, "You writers have been done to death. This year alone we've done Chinua Achebe, Ann Beattie, Carolyn Chute--"
I held the phone away from my ear. This woman was a New Yorker, now vexed and annoyed.
I caught up with her again while she was still reeling off the names--Nancy Mairs, John McPhee, Sue Miller, and more. She started slowing down only with Walter Wetherell and the two Wolffs. Then she paused. "So tell me," she said. "What's so special about you?"
The McGilley Family Trust awarded me megabucks because my pioneering work in reaching past linearity in fiction is broadly understood to mirror contemporary reality. I've reached past linearity. Boy no longer meets girl. Or if boy meets girl, girl meets train, the Sihks meet the Hindus, Barbara Bush meets Raisa Gorbachev. Transitions become kaleidoscopic.
Susan Stamberg is braying. She asks, "People really like that?" She's interviewing a Philadelphia baker, a man who bakes pastry the shape and size of bodies. His customers line up to buy wedding cakes in the image of the bride, and the guests are forking into thighs and breasts.
If only I were a baker.
The phone rings. It's the Dean again. My friends know better than to call when "All Things Considered" is airing. He'd like me to reconsider. He'd like me to resign or take a leave for the duration of my grant.
"Normal writers bolt from the classroom the moment they can afford to," he says.
Say it's the influence of radio: all sound, no picture. Say it's all voice. Did I convey what the Dean looks like? Or the NPR producer? Or Susan Stamberg for that matter? Or me?
Susan Stamberg is interviewing an advocate of trans-species sexual congress. The man tells her that such terms as "buggering" are demeaning, prejudicial. He prefers the phrase "animal husbandry." Susan Stamberg says "I see" in a tone that's all skepticism. "But what about this sexual congress," she asks, "from the standpoint of a particular horse or cow?"
The man explains that the animals involved tend to be smaller. "The working lifespan of a loved animal," he says, "is from two to fifteen years longer than that of an animal raised for slaughter." The spokesman certainly knows his facts. He tells Susan that the average pet dog in America never lives to see its fourth birthday.
"I didn't know that," says Susan.
Susan Stamberg doesn't know that I exist.
My mother loved me as a child, loved me and listened to me. Even my therapist concurs on this point. I am not looking for approval. I'd be willing to talk with Susan Stamberg privately, with the microphones switched off.
Some basic questions: Is this the next paragraph? What if you've lost a page or if I've misnumbered the manuscript once again (the secret of my technique)? Are we dislocated? Where am I, after all? Where are you? Has the broadcast been prerecorded?
Another basic question: Does Susan Stamberg wonder about us, just as we wonder about her?
Snapshots. I am in my narrow kitchen, standing over a sink filled with dishes. The entire apartment smells of dried eucalyptus, a decorative touch wasted on the radio audience. A swedish ivy hangs in the window. The radio sits atop the refrigerator--a Sanyo model RP 5225, a two-band AM-FM receiver, its antenna broken off three inches above the casing.
But that's apocryphal. The water roars out the faucet and I can never hear you above it, Susan Stamberg. I sit quietly at the edge of my bed, fingernail in my mouth, listening on the Panasonic clock radio.
My fourteen creative writing students are wired for sound in Walkmen. It's 6:05 in the evening, and they're scattered around the city, doing whatever it is they do--playing video games, buying albums, skateboarding. They have to listen. It's an assignment. They are frowning. It isn't their idea. What does a radio show that has no music have to do with creative writing, they ask.
They ask my department chairman.
They ask the Dean.
Come on, kids, I say. Smile for the mind's eye. That's right. It's "All Things Considered."
Time could be passing. It takes a hurricane or a national drought to prompt a weather report on this radio show. When the air temperature drops and the leaves turn brown, we pull off the screens and shut the windows. Without the sounds of traffic from the street, the rooms grow quiet. We make an adjustment of the volume knob.
Susan Stamberg is interviewing an astrologer who determines a person's fate by the position of the stars at the moment of his death, not his birth. He might have been born a Virgo but what counts is whether he dies a Leo.
"Is there really a market for this?" Susan asks. "Well," the woman says, "people are starting to insist that they be taken off their respirators before they come to a cusp."
"You're kidding," Susan says, delight apparent in her voice. The woman tells Susan that clients have to pay in advance. The astrologer has been working funerals.
"Hm," says Susan. "Is that like giving a eulogy?" "Something like that," the woman says.
"How would that sound?" Susan asks.
"Well," the woman says, "last week I did one for a woman who died a Capricorn. 'Jane,' I said, 'went into her death with her moon in Orion. No wonder none of her marriages lasted. People dying with their moons in Orion tend to be interested more in conquest than in consistency--"
"Wait a minute," Susan says. "Orion's not in the zodiac, is it?"
"It gets better," the astrologer says. "Her setting sign fell on a direct tangent to downtown LA. No wonder she was so histrionic."
"Her setting sign?" asks Susan.
"She should have stayed single," the astrologer says. "Um hm," says Susan Stamberg. "Now is there any way of knowing in advance what your death sign will be?"
"Short of killing yourself?" the woman asks. The question hangs in the air.
Even before the genius grant, the students and the Dean were urging success upon me. One best-seller, they thought, and I'd be launched away from campus forever. The students call my methods arbitrary, but life is arbitrary. I shuffle the pages of their stories before I read them. They ask tiresome questions about plot development and story structure. I talk about randomness and confusion. At the window of the classroom I point toward the smoke stacks, the projects, the railroad tracks drawing the eye to the horizon.
"What is verisimilitude?" I ask.
Tenure is a double-edged knife.
What is it about you, Susan Stamberg?
My therapist would prefer that her identity be respected in this and my other work. So let us refer to her as Dr. Deidre von Schien, M.D., her actual name, with all due respect. Her office is a perch on the tenth floor of a high rise overlooking a city square. She gets excellent reception. In her waiting room, stereo speakers purr out classical programming. Is the point of this to relax the client or merely to muffle the sound of the previous appointment's therapy? If yours is a 5:00 appointment and Dr. von Schien is running late, you will hear the co-hosts give the lead- in for "All Things Considered."
Alternatively, you ignore the news and stare out the window down ten flights to the crowds milling along Washington Avenue and Pierce Street. Where were these multitudes just ten minutes before? How is it that they're all so sure of their destinations? What do they know that I don't know?
"So tell me," she asks, "what made you decide to go into non- commercial advertising?" It's Susan Stamberg, finally interviewing me.
"Because I'm an advocate of non-commercial radio," I say. She's not fooled. "That's not the real reason, is it? After all, your ads weren't broadcast on non-commercial radio stations."
That's true. Those ads cost a fortune.
"Sounds to me," she says, "like you were just trying to have fun."
I shrug but she can't see that. She's in the studio in Washington and I'm in the studio at the local affiliate, about ten blocks from campus. That's how they do it when they have time to set up an interview in advance. Otherwise they have you talk into your phone but then the sound isn't as good.
I'm talking into a microphone at a huge circular desk in a room that's apparently completely sound-proofed. The ceiling looks like corrugated foam. One wall is all glass.
Susan Stamberg is evidently sitting in something called Studio Five. I'm getting her through a big pair of earphones. I feel like a Mouseketeer. The station manager sits next to me and points her finger at the microphone when it's my turn to speak.
"Let me get this straight," Susan says. "You made up and paid for an advertising campaign for products that don't exist."
"Well, they didn't exist," I say. "But someone is marketing Realpoo now."
"Tell us about Realpoo."
"Realpoo is for people with hair," I say. "Try Realpoo and champagne instead of shampoo and real pain."
"I like that," she says. "Try Realpoo and champagne....That has a real ring to it."
I'm going to be known for the rest of my days as the man who invented Realpoo.
There's an imposing clock on the wall with an unstoppable second hand. But this interview is being taped for later broadcast. They'll edit it. There's no point in being anxious about the time.
When they air the interview, they'll also broadcast the jingle I made up for another non-product, Powder-to-the-people. "Black powder for the black, black people; red powder for the red, red people; powder to the people!"
Susan Stamberg asks me to talk about the other non-products. There's Blue Genes (for a truly depressive child). There's the five-year renewable marriage license and the college degree with an expiration date.
"But what about the other ones?" she asks. "The ones that sound suspiciously like something else we know about?"
She's referring to Oil Things Considered (The Right Art For The Right Spot) and Oral Things Considered (Why Pay Through Your Teeth?)
"And isn't it true," she asks, "that in all these ads, which ran for a week in your city, you listed our 800 number as the number to call?"
"Well," I say, "I was just trying to direct people's attention to the real non-commercial radio. You see," I tell her, "I thought my ridiculous ads would make people question the whole process."
"I don't know," Susan Stamberg says, sounding skeptical, "but hundreds of calls came in wanting to buy Realpoo."
"Sorry," I say.
"I wonder," says Susan. "But you certainly caught our attention."
"Your producer's?" I ask.
"Hm," she says. "What do you know about my producer?"
It's 6:20 in the evening and I'm at home with my Panasonic. There I am on the radio and Susan Stamberg is asking me if all of my non-commercials are going to make me rich. I stare at my hands and listen to myself explain that if I'd had the business sense to even register a trademark I'd be potentially collecting thousands now. The stuff is already starting to go head and shoulders with Head and Shoulders.
As it happens, the non-commercials ate up the McGilley Family Trust money. Of course, I still draw a paycheck over at campus.
It's depressing to realize that when you're interviewed by Susan Stamberg, you don't necessarily get to meet her.
I sit back on my bed and listen to the end of the interview. Susan Stamberg says, "Fun's fun, everybody, but please don't call our eight-hundred number in Washington, all right?"
There's a pause and then the sign-off: And for this evening, that's all things considered.
I get up from the bed and switch off the receiver. It's quiet in my apartment, and then I hear the rumble of a truck outside. I walk to the living room and stare out the window. It will be summer again soon and boats will moor in the harbor. I walk into my narrow kitchen and peek into the refrigerator. I feel a hunger growing inside me, bit it's not a hunger food can touch. A man's reach should exceed his grasp. Is there going to be life after Susan Stamberg?
Rod Kessler (firstname.lastname@example.org) commutes from Cambridge to Salem, Massachusetts, to teach writing and edit the Sextant at Salem State College. Progress on his novel has slowed with the birth of his son two years ago, but he gets to spend a lot of time playing horsey. (Bio last updated in 1993.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Rod Kessler.