Story Collider Staff Picks 2016

At the end of every year, each Story Collider staff member selects a story that resonated with him or her to feature for our end-of-the-year roundup. This year, each of us has selected a story that changed us, or opened our eyes in some way, big or small. We hope you enjoy!

Paula Croxson: How Cold Is Too Cold?

There are people who are built to run. They gracefully devour the miles with long, strong legs and are a marvel to behold. I know because I spend a lot of time watching them while I plod along in their wake. I’m a late-blooming runner, galvanized by an NPR interview in which running was described as a “sport for stubborn people.” I may not be graceful, but tenacious? Sure. And I think it is specifically because I will never be particularly fast that distance running has become seductive to me. I had just started training for my very first marathon when I heard Paula Croxson tell the story “How Cold Is Too Cold?” Her human anatomy lesson is what initially caught my attention, but her race-day story and inner monologue during her swim are what stick with me. During my marathon training, I slipped on ice once and fell spinning. I got lacerated by brambles and sunk in mud over my ankles many times. I got disoriented and euphoric, crying with joy and exhaustion. Every time, Paula’s story was a touchstone for me. Was I overdoing it? Was I endangering myself? Were these things to be proud of or embarrassed by? Knowing when to turn back is just as important as being able to put your head down and keep swimming. As Paula says at the end of her story, “Don’t get me wrong, [doing these swims] still scares me… but I can’t wait to do the next one.” As for me, well, my second marathon is in April.

-- Liz Neeley, executive director


Nathan Boll: What Else Is Out There?

“What if” terrifies me. I can’t even have a discussion on vacations too far ahead of time because I worry about scheduling, taking time off from work, planning logistics, etc. The “let’s move to X” exercise often employed by my partner when we’re feeling overwhelmed actually ends up being more overwhelming because my mind immediately goes to, “How would we pay for it?” or “What if we couldn’t find jobs?” or “What would we take?” With this mindset, I have to say that I surprised myself when thinking about memorable stories from 2016 and immediately thought of Nathan Boll’s story, “What Else Is Out There?” He didn’t worry about the small (what I feel is huge) stuff. Each time in his life when he wasn’t happy, he took action to fix it. His independence and spirit and willingness to put himself out there are an inspiration to me. His story reminds me that things will work out, so perhaps I should stop worrying about everything.

-- Shane Hanlon, DC producer and host


Kaća Bradonjić: The Nature of Space and Time

There’s a particularly difficult kind of story to pull off: one where the science and the story are separate, but comment on each other. It’s easy to make that forced or for the parallel to not really work. Kaća Bradonjić’s story is spectacular in how well it works. The story of a war refugee whose notions of time and space are shattered by the experience is perfectly complemented by the ideas of a theoretical physicist who studies the notions of space and time in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and of course the story is really made powerful by the fact that they’re the same person. I love stories of science directly impacting people’s lives, but there is extraordinary poetry in the parallels when it really works.

-- Ben Lillie, co-founder and director of special projects


MaryAnn Wilbur: Two Pregnancies

Those of us in the storytelling scene talk a lot about empathy. What does it mean to experience someone else's life vicariously? Professor Amy Shuman offers a warning: “Empathy is one kind of obligation, sometimes creating a possibility for understanding across differences, sometimes involving sentimentality, sometimes romanticizing tragedy as inspiration, but in any case deeply compromising the relationship between tellers and listeners.” MaryAnn Wilbur's story is one of the most literal examples I have ever seen of the potential problems with empathy: an OBGYN delivering a pre-term baby at exactly as many weeks as she is herself "secretly pregnant." Totally understandable thoughts of her own fetus are followed by an admonishing "This is so not about me." MaryAnn beautifully captures the paradox many of us in caretaking professions confront every day: "I'm charged with caring for humans, but I'm a human."

-- Christine Gentry, Boston producer and host


Maryam Zaringhalam: Cheating My Way to Smart

When I was in school, I always finished my math test first, and was very proud of the deep sighs of annoyance that my fellow students would give me as I walked to the front of the class to pass in my exam. I played this story for my students the other week while they were studying for their final. I regularly find my role as a high school teacher is to relieve anxiety instead of teach because they seem to believe that if they don’t pass their math test, they will end up destitute, alone, and unloved. I find myself regularly telling my students that the test doesn’t matter, their grades don’t matter, and they just need to learn how to breathe. It may seem irresponsible, but I want them to know that they can cheat their way through school because I want them to know that success in school and success after school are not analogous. Though it may feel like it, school is not just a level in a game that they complete, but rather school is a time in life when they are open to learning lessons. Maryam’s story really hits home that idea that the lessons she learned from the classroom were not the ones on the syllabus. It’s an amazing reminder to have as a teacher -- it relieves me from the awesome responsibility that I arrogantly place on myself, and also humbles me to remember that the lessons that my students learn are as much based on who I sit them next to as what I say to them. So therefore I want them to know that they can cheat their way into all the smart classes, but the reality is that in adult life they are going to have to do the work, so they might as well learn how to do it now. I wish I had known that I was learning useful lessons when I was that age -- I might have paid more attention instead of just focusing on finishing as soon as possible.

-- Nisse Greenberg, New York producer and host


Nneze Akwiwu: The First Female President of Nigeria

I first met Nneze Akwiwu by phone.  I was interviewing her for a public radio story about her chemistry professor at Spelman, John Dimandja.  She spoke eloquently about the role he played in getting her to believe in herself.  John told a story at our Atlanta Story Collider in 2015.  When we returned to do a show in Atlanta in 2016, I asked him for recommendations of storytellers.  He suggested Nneze.  I leapt at the chance to work with her again.  And her story -- about her journey to want to become the first female president of Nigeria -- really moved me.  Nneze’s semester ramped up fast, so we worked together on her story over the phone just a couple of times. We decided to position her last in the lineup for the show, and her story was the perfect way to conclude the evening.  It contrasted the hardships of growing up as a girl in Nigeria with Nneze’s dreams of leading her country into a new era.  After the show concluded, numerous people approached Nneze.  One person asked her to follow up about a job opportunity.  And within a month of us posting her story on the Story Collider podcast, it became one of the episodes listened to the most.  I’m so proud of Nneze -- for daring to dream, and daring to do it out loud.

-- Ari Daniel, Boston producer and host


Patrick Freeman: Elephant Time

As a physicist, I don’t think much about biology. I mean, I appreciate it as an invaluable part of science, and I know there’s tons of interesting stuff happening in the field, but it’s not something I feel much connection to. Patrick Freeman’s story, “Elephant Time,” changed that for me. Patrick talks about how, while doing field work on elephants, he got the news that his grandfather had died, and how being among these large, serene, beautiful creatures helped him deal with his emotions even during the chaos of being in the field. When my parents died, I found consolation in my own research, i.e., math. The orderly process of doing a calculation helped me find solace in the middle of a turbulent personal period. Hearing Patrick’s story of how he found comfort in a “messy” discipline -- conservation biology -- let me experience how another type of scientist processes grief. And although I’ll never find myself in the middle of an elephant preserve, the next time I need to work through some difficult emotions, I may just sit down with a glass of bourbon, think of Patrick’s story, and watch a few elephant videos.

-- Brian Wecht, co-founder and LA producer and host


Dan Daneshvar: Making the Death Call

Listening to Dan's story about making phone calls to families requesting the donation of their deceased loved ones’ brains for science research, I couldn't believe that someone would do such a thing!  It seemed wrong to donate something that isn't yours -- or to pillage your family member's dead corpse.  I couldn't imagine saying yes to a request like that for my mother or father's brain!  In looking at a person, you don't imagine all the inner workings going on inside their skin.  You only see them on the outside.  The idea of a brain outside a body, being studied and poked -- I didn't want to think about it at all.  Even Dan himself admitted to feeling torn about the appropriateness of making this big ask to total strangers and admitted that it doesn't get easier to make each phone call.  What changed my mind about what I would say if I were ever to receive this call was his sense of mission.  It gives him the energy to continue -- to study the effects of repetitive concussions in order to help those who will be affected by it in the future.  If he's successful, his research could help save a life.  Not only would I now say yes, but his story has also made me realize that the best thing that you can do with your own life is do something bigger than yourself that will help others, create a ripple effect of good, and hopefully outlive you.

-- Cassie Soliday, LA producer and host


Rachel Yehuda: Cause and Effect

I first heard Rachel's amazing story last winter as part of a six-week workshop The Story Collider did with Mt. Sinai's Friedman Brain Institute. Rachel is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai who has made important discoveries about why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others don't, and how the effects can even cross generations. (You can tell she's important because she has her own Wikipedia page.) In her story, she returns to her hometown of Cleveland as a young psychiatrist in an attempt to study PTSD in Holocaust survivors in her community and finds they're less eager to hand over their "blood and urine" than she'd anticipated. Last winter, I was especially struck by this part of her story: "We used to have all these discussions about whether the Holocaust could happen again, in the United States. I really thought those were rhetorical questions. I guess I felt safe. But I could see that my friends who had Holocaust survivor parents were actually in some way preparing for this possibility... There was one family that cooked, ate, and slept in their basement, leaving two floors above unoccupied. I guess they still felt like they were in hiding." At the time, I couldn't fathom that anyone could really believe another Holocaust could happen today, in the United States -- so much so that they would still live with this fear. But since last winter, I've seen how hate can take root and gain strength quickly and unexpectedly, from the spray-painted swastikas that appeared overnight on our local Adam Yauch Park after the election to its more serious and insidious forms, and the way I listen to this story has changed. Like Rachel in her story, I've learned that the fears these survivors experienced are very real, and need to be heard and understood.

-- Erin Barker, artistic director