Bright Ideas: Stories about inspiration

This week, we're presenting stories about unconventional solutions and things that seemed like a great idea at the time!

Part 1: Author Kate Greathead sets off on a cross-country drive to escape her anxiety. 

Kate Greathead is a 9-time Moth Storytelling Slam champion. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, and on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour. She was a subject in the American version of the British Up documentary series. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Teddy Wayne. Her first novel, Laura & Emma, was published in March 2018.

Part 2: After years of studying worms, Tracy Chong begins to wonder if they might hold the key to alleviating hunger. 

Tracy Chong found her passion working with invertebrates as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. She studied the development and regeneration of the reproductive system in the planarian, a free-living flatworm. She is currently part of a team at the Morgridge Institute for Research studying parasitic worms that causes the debilitating disease, Schistosomiasis. Aside from worms and science, Tracy is passionate about entrepreneurship and food. Combining her formal training as a scientist, with her culinary interest and hands-on business experience, Tracy’s vision is to provide a sustainable and affordable source of protein to meet the world’s growing global nutritional demands.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Kate Greathead

So I was twenty-four years old and I was driving across the country by myself from New York City to California and everything was going fine until I crossed the border into Wyoming.  I'd always thought of Wyoming as like having mountains and stuff like that but this portion was completely flat.  You could see for miles and miles.  There were like no houses or trees.  Just land and sky, which is kind of beautiful but also sort of existentially terrifying. 

Anyway, that wasn’t the problem.  The problem was the wind.  The wind was really, really intense.  You know when you're in an airplane and the turbulence gets so bad that the pilot comes on and he's like, “Everyone, put on your seatbelts now.  No one is allowed to go to the bathroom.”  It was like that, except in a car and I was the pilot. 

Exits on the Wyoming interstate are few and far between, but finally I spotted that little green sign in the distance and I pulled off and I pulled into a gas station.  I walked inside and the woman behind the counter was like out of a David Lynch movie or something.  She just has this stone cold look on her face and she was wearing a lot of makeup.  It reminded me of the makeup they put on a corpse to make it look more alive, but it just makes them look more dead. 

So I go over to this woman and I explain my situation.  “Hi.  I’m driving from New York City to California and I don't know if you've listened to the forecast but really the wind is out-of-control dangerous out there.  Do you mind if I hang out in your gas station until the wind passes?” 

Here’s how she responds.  “If you're waiting for the wind to pass, you'll never leave Wyoming.”

The way she spoke these words, not a trace of emotion or empathy on her face, gave me the impression she’d been waiting her whole life to deliver a line like that to a pathetic, neurotic New Yorker like me.  A truck driver who had overheard us talking came over and explained to me that what would be considered a windy day in any other state is a normal day in Wyoming. 

So what was going on outside there was no way around it.  I had no choice but to get back in my car and return to the interstate.  So that’s what I did. 

I’m driving and my car feels like a dryer on the spin cycle.  My knuckles are turned white and it feels like at any moment a gust of wind is going to come and just , poof, blow my car off the road and just send me skittering into the abyss, like game over. 

Wyoming, by the way, is this stretch that I was driving through is over 400 miles long.  So this isn’t like Connecticut we’re talking about.  As I continue my journey through Wyoming, I started to enter another state.  The kind that begins with sweating and ends with thinking you're going to die. 

Panic attacks are nothing new to me.  I began getting them after college.  I would be going through my day when all of a sudden, a cold, white terror would descend and whatever I was doing at the moment no longer mattered because I was about to die.  That’s what panic attacks feel like for me. 

So I continue.  I have no choice; I just continue to drive ahead.  Finally, I see another little green sign, another exit and I’m so relieved to get off and just have another little break.  But as I approach the sign for this town, it says ‘Lost Springs, Wyoming.  Population: One’.  You can look it up on the internet.  It’s true.  Except now it has four.  Four people live there according to Google. 

But anyway, it just seemed like a little intrusive to stop in a town where one person lives, so I kept on driving.  Miles and miles and miles later there's another town and this one is like a normal town, more than one person lives.  And on the sign it says there's gas, lodging, pay phone and a hospital.  At this point I’m still in full-blown panic attack mode and that just seems like the best news to me.  I need to get to the hospital. 

So I pull off the exit.  I find the hospital.  I park my car and I’m about to enter the front doors when, all of a sudden, I sort of plan out in my head like what am I going to say when I get inside.  I should explain that I’m having trouble breathing because… oh, I forgot a part of the story. 

Part of my panic attacks, part of what makes them so scary is that I have asthma.  And when I get panic attacks it triggers my asthma which exacerbates the panic, which makes the asthma worse.  So it’s sort of like a chicken-and-egg situation. 

And to backtrack a little bit, the reason I’m driving, so when I had these panic attacks after college I went to a doctor.  My medical doctor diagnosed me as having asthma and my therapist diagnosed me as having anxiety.  I was put on all sorts of medication so I was put on Zoloft, albuterol, steroid inhaler, beta blockers, nothing worked.  The panic attacks continued and I blamed them on life in New York City and how stressful it is to live here.  I had this idea in my head that California would be like an easier, safer place to live.  That’s what I’m doing right now in my car in the middle of Wyoming.  I’m moving to California. 

But now I’m outside this hospital and I’m about to go in and I’m trying to think of how I’m going to explain myself to, once I get inside like should I go to the ER or should I go to the psych ward. 

As I’m trying to figure this out, I remember this study that I learned about in college psychology class where a bunch of PhD students checked themselves into a mental hospital as an experiment to see what would happen.  What happened is that they hated it there and they wanted to get out.  The doctors went on this power trip and they're like, “No, we’ll tell you when you're ready to leave.”  And I just had this sudden fear of being trapped in the psychiatric ward of a hospital off of the interstate in Wyoming. 

I decided, “You know what?  I’m not going to go inside.  I’m going to get back in my car and I’m going to keep breathing and I’m going to keep driving.  I’m going to get the hell out of Wyoming.” 

The good news is I made it.  It worked.  I arrived in California.  The bad news is I discovered life was just as difficult and scary there for the same reasons I had been in New York.  I was living in San Francisco and I just had trouble, like the same relationship problems and jobs and money and all your typical twenty-something issues trying to figure out what I was good at and what I was supposed to do with my life. 

Kate Greathead tells her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Kate Greathead tells her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

San Francisco was not the answer to my problems so I moved to Louisiana.  After a month there, I went to Pennsylvania, and then there's a brief stint in Vermont in the Hudson Valley.  I spent the remainder of my twenties bouncing around from place to place trying to find a place that just felt safe and easier.  Eventually, it dawned on me that it wasn’t any of these places that was scary.  It was adult life.  And there's no way to escape that. 

In some ways, this revelation was a relief because it meant I didn’t have to keep moving around.  I get to return to New York City, which is where I’m from and has always felt the most like home to me.  So I've been back here for a number of years. 

I’m now thirty-five and I recently got married and I published this book I was working on for years.  I’m about to have a baby.  And on paper, so it looks like I have some semblance of a career and adult life on paper.  But the truth is, I still find life pretty scary a lot of the time. 

I recently went back to my old therapist to talk specifically about my fears about being pregnant and having a baby and I was kind of hoping she’d diagnose me with pregnancy anxiety and depression, because that would mean my fears were irrational and hormonally based and they’d go away once I had the baby.  But instead she said everything I was thinking and feeling was completely rational, which just wasn’t that comforting. 

And when I asked, when I told her my big concern like, “What if when the baby is born like I project my issues and complexes onto this poor little kid and he grows up with problems?  Because I love my mom but I really think that a lot of my issues come from her.” 

And my therapist said, “Of course, you will.  There's no such thing as parents who don’t screw up their kids somehow.  How do you think I have a thriving practice?”  And then she recommended transcendental meditation. 

Somehow like the internet found out about this because I started, you know, when you get ads.  It’s like all of a sudden I started getting ads, like pop-up ads.  “Check out transcendental meditation.”  There's a class in Manhattan and they were having like… you could sign up.  They wanted you to register, and I did it.

I went to an orientation session downtown and we’re all in this little room and we go around and we say why we’re there, what specific problems we have that we think transcendental meditation can fix. 

I told them like, “I’m really scared of life.  I’m just so anxious.” 

And they're like, “This will fix… Trust us.  This will fix you.” 

So I've signed up for the class.  It hasn’t started yet.  I just only went to that orientation session.  It’s happening in a few weeks.  I’m hopeful that it could help.

But I’m beginning to think that, like I always sort of hope that one day I'd wake up an anxiety-free person but the older I get the more I think that anxiety in me is sort of like the wind to Wyoming.  Instead of trying to fight it, maybe the trick is to accept it and to keep on breathing and to keep on driving and that’s it.  Thanks a lot.


Part 2: Tracy Chong

I live in a tiny 150-square foot studio.  Not by myself, but with over five thousand roommates.  At night, I don’t need a white noise machine to fall asleep because I can hear them rustling and crawling around, but maybe I do need some noise-cancelling headphones instead. 

So this is not my first encounter with the sound of creatures rustling around at night.  In southern Illinois, there's a very special road in the Shawnee National Forest.  Twice a year, a mass migration happens, a mass migration of snakes, reptiles and amphibians as they cross this very unique country road from cliffs and bluffs to the vast swamps as the seasons change. 

So what was I doing in Snake Road?  Yes.  This road is actually named Snake Road and my business in Snake Road was not to study snakes but to study worms.  My first formal encounter with worms was with freshwater planarians, the masters of regeneration.  Some of you might know them from biology class where, like in Game of Thrones, beheadings happen rather frequently.  But in this case, it is not followed by a bloody death.  Instead, they just re-grow a new head all without breaking a sweat. 

When I was a graduate student, I helped with a comparative study to find out why some planarians can regenerate better than others.  As it turns out, one of the most difficult parts of this project was to find those elusive worms.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t just order them off the internet so I actually had to go on worm-hunting adventures to find these worms in the wild. 

My colleague James and I, over the span of two years, made multiple trips to Snake Road.  And Snake Road is very special because this is one of the places in Illinois where we can find these worms.  Sometimes we went by ourselves, sometimes we were joined by curious and helpful lab mates. 

We spent days turning over thousands of pea-sized rocks in the stream often encountering many other different species of worms before encountering the rare planarians that we came for.  They were very good at hiding. 

At best, it was Zen-like and calming.  I would glance at the beautiful cliffs and listen to the gentle sounds of the stream.  At worst, it was mind numbing and frustrating, especially when the conditions were extreme, being bitten by swarms of mosquitoes in the hot, humid summer and dipping our hands in cold, freezing water for hours during the winter months.  At the start of each trip we would wish so hard that today would be the lucky day where the worms would just be hanging out, but of course this was never the case. 

Once, amidst the peace and quiet, I heard a soft rumbling sound.  James and I locked eyes and he said with a very straight face, “A wild boar?” 

Shit!  The image of a wild boar rushing straight at me flashed before my eyes.  I went through the different scenarios in my head.  Should I climb a tree?  Wait, could I even do that?  Should I run?  To where?  Fight?  Hmmm. 

Then I heard some laughing and he confessed that it was his stomach rumbling.  Oh, yeah, feeling hungry during those long afternoons was pretty common. 

Then there was the fear of poisonous snakes.  They are cottonmouths also known as water moccasins in southern Illinois.  I remember reading how they are poisonous, producing toxins that can disrupt blood clotting and destroy tissues and cells.  Such a scary thought. 

But the scariest part, though, was when I had to pee.  Imagine being this close to the ground covered with long grass, branches, fallen leaves, not knowing what’s hiding underneath but knowing that there's probably a snake, maybe a poisonous one, lurking somewhere in there. 

I remember my routine rather clearly.  I would use my feet and a stick to sweep the ground before squatting down.  Even then, my legs would be shaking and even the slightest rustle would cause my heart to skip a beat.  But when I was done, though, it was such a relief in more ways than one. 

Finally, we collected enough worms and brought them back to the lab to investigate with the polarity which end is which in the animal is important when it comes to regenerating a new body part. 

Then my next adventure, my next worm adventure brought me to the Bay Area.  It was a great time, exciting science, gorgeous weather, there were mountains to climb and hills to hike.  I was in a very tight budget, though, so this meant that I rarely ate out.  And when I did, it was very special and I would pack my leftovers for my next meal. 

One night, after a lovely dinner with my best friend Nick, I headed home happy and full.  At the station, a homeless man, clearly hungry, asked me if I needed my leftovers.  At that time, my leftovers were very precious to me so I said, “Yes, I need them.” 

The moment those words left my mouth, I felt like the most horrible, selfish person.  There I was able to go and have a nice meal, able to go home and fall asleep in a nice, cozy, warm bed and yet I could not give my leftovers to someone who really needed them.  At that moment I made a simple promise to myself that for as long as I could afford it, if I had leftovers and met someone who needed them, I would give them away. 

From that incident, though, I've always wanted to do even more to alleviate hunger and food shortage.  Well, as it turns out, the answer had been in front of right along.  After years of working with gentle and harmless flatworms and roundworms, I now work in a lab that studies parasitic worms. 

Tracy Chong tells her story in Madison, Iwsconsin.

Tracy Chong tells her story in Madison, Iwsconsin.

One of these parasites, the tapeworm, has a rather complicated life cycle that involves developing inside an insect, a beetle.  And the larval stage of this beetle is known as the mealworm.  Many mornings, I would watch my colleague Edward tending to his mealworms.  And once we joked how delicious and yummy these mealworms would be.  Actually, it was more like me joking and Edward, well, he looked rather grossed out at the thought of eating his mealworms. 

I've always known that people ate insects but, at the same time, I was starting to hear more and more about using insects as a potential source of protein.  The more I read, the more convinced I was that using insects as food could be a sustainable solution to the problem of food and nutrition shortage, especially as our population increases both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world. 

Well, of course I had to test this out for myself, first.  The first insect I ate was beondegi.  Beondegi Is silkworm larva.  It’s a South Korean street food and it’s often found boiled and served in paper cups.  We found our beondegi at a Korean grocery store in a can.  With much hesitation and trepidation I tasted my first beondegi with a Korean friend, and it was so bad.  I had tears streaming down my face trying not to gag.  I couldn’t decide if I should swallow it and be done with it or spit it out because it was mushy and it tasted like wet wood. 

I then had the brilliant idea of roasting it because I thought, oh, roasting it will make it taste better.  But that, again, was a horrible, terrible mistake.  Because roasting the beondegi caused the whole place to smell like rotting, wet wood.  The smell was so bad and, fortunately, my friends were understanding. 

At this point I was very, very worried.  How would my idea of using insects as a sustainable food source work if I hated the taste of insects?  Well, fortunately, the next bugs that I tried were the mealworms.  I can still remember how relieved I felt when I took my first bite of a roasted mealworm.  It was delicious.  It was crunchy.  It had a mild nutty flavor.  I could eat lots of this.  So as it turns out, mealworms have a great potential as a food source because they have high protein content and they are easy to raise. 

So yes, my 5,000 roommates who keep me company at night are my mealworms.  But rest assured these mealworms come from my happy farm and they have not been in contact with a parasite in lab. 

So now I work with what I love, cooking and worms.  And feeding my friends and colleagues who thankfully are quite open to being food testers.  Even Edward has been convinced to try a mealworm.  Of all my adventures and challenges with worms, I have a feeling that the best but maybe most difficult challenge is yet to come.  I have to convince all of you that mealworms are delicious and nutritious.  Thank you.