where letterboards go to die

Posted by on May 23, 2006



Even though I’ve worked with words professionally and even seen a few of my own words printed in small ways, I have not yet mastered impassivity at the event of my words going public. I toss in my bed when I deeply contemplate “people” reading something I wrote. Today my words went public in a huge (at least huge in my world) way: they were read on National Public Radio.

I was sitting at work this afternoon, listening to Talk of the Nation. They were doing a very interesting show about an organization called Story Corp. You can read about it here.

Anyway, the show was about the value of recording oral interviews with ordinary people who can tell personal stories that reflect something of American life that could potentially be lost with the passing of that person. They posed the question: Who would you interview? I immediately thought of my grandfather and when they started taking calls and e-mails, I whipped up an e-mail very quickly.

I never do anything like this, and I figured that the show gets glutted with e-mails and calls, and I was confident (and safe) in the knowledge that mine would be one of many to be overlooked. I barely even bothered to revise it before pressing the send button. But a few minutes later I heard it being read aloud, introduced by my first name. I felt my skin prickle all over. Hundreds of people around the country might be listening to my words…and truthfully, I’m not even sure if all of the facts in my e-mail were correct. But who cares? I love NPR, so I was high for the rest of the day today, just feeling that I succeeded, in a tiny way, in being woven into the radio fabric of May 23, 2006. (And I was spared too much agony since they didn’t use my last name.) Words are powerful, and I felt that today when I got goosebumps at hearing my own being read in the respectful, lovely radio voice of the host of Talk of the Nation.

Still, I feel a deep unrest about broadcasting my words, and am amazed at how often, and by how many, words are broadcast with apparent ease. Every day I pass a dozen letterboards on my (what is now becoming famous) summer job commute. They are home spun and speak boldly, if not always smoothly or accurately, on behalf of privately owned businesses. One letter board in front of a beauty salon says something like, “Longing for that sassy spring look?” And goes on to tempt the passersby to a new haircut. It leads my brain down a path of noisy questions, such as what constitutes a sassy haircut in Elkhart, Indiana. And…wait a minute…didn’t that adjective retire with the 80s?

In contrast to these aggressive letterboards are the empty, unused ones above. They seemed important to me, as if they were more wise than the other chatty, brazen letterboards. They have been relegated to a silent place, a field, where letterboards go to die. So I pulled over to photograph them– more blank signage, wordless messages, silence pregnant with a teaching, which I might call my own personal theme for my stay here in the Midwest. My life this past year, in contrast to the one I was experiencing in New York, is so free from interpersonal conflict, free from gossip, and free from my own voice, causing strife among other voices, struggling to voice “a voice,” and articulate words that I deem worthy to broadcast, then agonize over later.

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  1. Lucy
    May 26, 2006

    I wish I knew you were on NPR! Of course they didn’t overlook you, Jules. Silly girl, everything you do is quality.

    Like this blog of yours.

    You are one of my private heros.

  2. Jenny
    May 26, 2006

    You were on NPR yesterday! Wow. That is so exciting.I’ve got to follow that link and hear it! Just this week I dreamt that I was on This American Life, but I showed up 20 minutes late for my interview and forgot to dry my hair. I had to get up on a stage and read before a huge audience with my stringy half-wet hair. To make matters worse, I couldn’t stop shaking so Julie (the exec producer) had to hold me to calm me down because I was shaking so violently . . .

  3. Lucy
    May 26, 2006

    Now I’m curious as to what passes as a sassy spring haircut in Elkhart, Indiana.

    And, Jenny, I’m sure you’ll be on Ira’s TV show some way or another, with a sassy Chicago haircut that might be a bit wet.

  4. Julia
    May 26, 2006

    Thanks, both of you! I’m glad you think that having your e-mail read on NPR is as big of a deal as I do. And Jenny, she’s right, with all your published material and sparkling personality I see the Diane Reem (sp?) show in your future.

  5. Lucy
    May 29, 2006

    Hey, I went and listened to the program and heard your email read!