Saturday, February 26, 2011

Not knowing the key elements that help you recall a certain thing can be incredibly frustrating. We've all experienced this, like when you can't remember who sang certain song or quipped a legendary line. Online search engines can usually alleviate this problem. Google anticipates where you're going before you even finish typing your search. But what if the thing you're looking for isn't traceable by any of the obvious terms? What if the terms are too generic and give you too many results (except for the right one)? Or what if the item simply isn't tagged properly, sitting quietly in some corner of webspace waiting to be found in some other roundabout search method? How lonely must that little online item be? And how frustrating must it be for those who cannot find it?

Such was my frustration for six long years, after hearing an amazing episode of This American Life, and despite searching high and low for the episode after hearing it the first time, I was never able to find it again. Not in the radio show's archives. Not on iTunes. Nowhere. For six long years. In that time, I retold the story to my friends and family members (especially the politically minded, as you'll see). Each time I knew I was forgetting important details that held the original together. I think I even started making things up just so that the overall account made sense. I repeatedly went back to the web, digging through the show's archives, searching through online forum threads and chasing dead links, no thanks to the show's restructuring of its online archives. I never gave up on the search, but sometimes I did forget about it for long periods of time, until something reminded me of the story again and made me think to look for it, never with a different outcome. But just the other day, there was a breakthrough.

The day started just like any other Saturday. I was at my computer, drinking coffee, reading the news, checking blogs, stalling before my morning bike ride. I heard Ira Glass' voice from the stereo downstairs while Andrea watered the plants. Almost subconsciously I plugged my typical search terms into the Google homepage: "This American Life" + Afghanistan + Rumsfeld (hence the politics). The resulting links were a purple nightmare, the dead-end links I'd visited in the past. A few blue links appeared near the top. So I clicked on one - a blog with a comment thread that mentioned the show, something I'd come across a lot in my previous searches, many written by people who (like me) remembered the show, some more vaguely than others, but could never find the original in the archives. At the bottom of this blog was a comment with a link, probably another dead end. It had "" in the URL, which could mean luck or just another dead end. Not even thinking really, I clicked it. And then it happened. I was on the show's website. I was looking at my episode. Six long years. And there it was. Staring me in the face. I'd found it. Was it lonely and in a corner like I'd assumed? Probably not. But there I was, happy as a kid that found his lost dog (wow, I guess that happens a lot).

I hesitated before clicking play, just enough time to put down my coffee and put on my headphones. Moments later I was six years back, hearing the show for the first time, driving through Cambridge's Central Square in my sputtering Camry along Prospect Street, heading to Jamaica Plain to visit Andrea. I'd forgotten that that's where I was heading, but I remembered it now. And I remembered all of the details of the story that were lost, and the times I'd invented fiction while retelling it in the past.

Interestingly, my search terms never would have helped me find the story through the program's website. Here's the show's description, which has no overlap with my previous online investigations:
The story of a series of misunderstandings with very dire consequences. Shaheen was stopped by the police, who looked at what was in his car and before Shaheen knew it, he'd come to the attention of some of the highest ranking officials in the Defense Department. Gabrielle Galanek talked to Shaheen and his girlfriend Molly about what happened. (35 minutes)
Nothing about Afghanistan or Donald Rumsfeld. Of course, because these are minor players in the overall story. But still, these things were the glue that held the story together in my mind, and did so for so long. Why? I can't be sure, but this glue was the barrier between me and the show. Afghanistan and Rumsfeld were blocking my access to Ira Glass and his description of the show, which was so appropriately vague that almost no search terms could find it on the web. To get around this barrier, I had to rely on people who assembled their recollection of the story just like me, with the same details and the same search terms, who published these things on the web and allowed me to search for them. But don't we all hear a story differently - each of us remembering different details, different meanings, memories and so on? Luckily, I found someone (good old Aram Harrow, whoever he might be) who not only shared my memory of the show, but who also knew where the real thing resided. I have no idea how he found it, it doesn't matter now, because he wrote the comment that became my breakthrough. He unknowingly ended my six-year separation from the story of my affection. And for that I thank him.

So for everyone else looking for the same show with the same terms, search no more. I give you Episode 288: That's Not What I Meant, which originally aired on May 6, 2005. Enjoy, and may you relive not just a great story but the memories of hearing it for the first time.

Image Credit: Kim Asendorf


Saturday, February 5, 2011

I recently produced a series of visualizations for James Cohan Gallery of Chelsea, NYC for their installation at the annual Art Basel fair. An exciting group of artists will be shown in the installation including Roxy Paine, Bill Viola, Robert Smithson, and Fred Tomaselli.

(a collaboration with Ben Ritter)