Half Baked is a phrase I use to describe an idea, or sometimes a constellation of ideas that may hang out together but don’t fully form a cohesive concept or, in this case, blog post. It will appear every now and again, when I’ve got something to share that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else.
When I was a kid, I loved taking things apart. Anything that I could find that had been discarded or that was no longer working would end up in pieces on the floor of my small bedroom. I would look at all the parts, interconnected, and try to understand how the object had worked. Toasters and toys (who knew there was a tiny record player in the torso of talking dolls?!) and calculators and clocks. This last was my favorite. Watches and clocks, when I could get my hands on them, provided endless satisfaction with their tiny gears and springs and screws. They were beautiful and complex and, to my eight-year old self, filled with mystery and potential.
Now one of my favorite things to do, in the stolen moments of free time that I find in the course of a week, is to listen to podcasts. Recently, when listening to the consistently excellent This American Life, I heard an ad for something new: “When an antique clock breaks” it began, “a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that was handmade by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system….”
Well now, they had my interest, and that was even before the narrator, Brian Reed, goes on to describe something called a “witness mark”, which clock-makers and restorers use to trace the work of the maker of the clock–to better understand and subsequently restore or fix it. Small indications–scratches, screw holes or discolorations that may tell the story of what the original maker had been thinking or intending.
Some of you may recognize this already as the podcast, “S-Town“, which tells the story of a most memorable man, John B. McLemore. We learn that John B., as friends call him, lives in Alabama and speaks with a pronounced southern accent. He is a college drop-out who lives on the same land that his grandfather and father had before him. He drives a pick-up truck and has a bunch of stray dogs that he has taken in. Given all of this, it would be easy to make assumptions about him. But here’s the thing–if you listen to the podcast, John B. continually surprises you. Actually, a number of people in it do.
It turns out that John B. is a madman and super-genius. A horologer, polymath, inventor, botanist, and provocateur, He is eccentric and endlessly endearing. And he lives in a small town in Alabama that he calls “Shit Town”. Thus the name of the podcast.
Years ago, when I thought I wanted to be a researcher when I grew up, I was in a program to earn a PhD in Social Psychology. With an emphasis on health research, I worked in an HIV research center. A small but bustling and scrappy venture in the heart of New York City, there were a number of concurrent studies running at any one time. Each of these was different from one another, but similar in a number of significant ways. They quite often were looking to answer questions about how substance use affected various behaviors and health outcomes. In one study in particular, the population was primarily minority, very low socio-economic status, HIV positive, and to varying degrees, substance abusing.
I met a significant number of people who participated in these studies, who I would not likely have met otherwise. And I’ll tell you this–I’d be hard pressed to tell you about the results or findings of any of the studies, but I did learn something that shaped and changed my entire life and perspective. I learned that if you let them, people will surprise you.
I learned that an African American grandmother in rural Georgia supported her grandson in his exploration of gender expression. She bought him nightgowns and undergarments and painted his nails. She made him feel beautiful when everyone else made him feel unworthy of love.
I learned that a person could be trained as a chef in Europe, working in some of the best restaurants for 20 years, and could still lose it all. Could sit on street corners now, chatting with friends, looking like someone with no past and no future.
I learned that vast intelligence and insight don’t protect anyone from addiction or bad luck. And that some people’s luck is just a lot harder than others.
I learned that when you are homeless, you can go days without a single person making eye contact with you. That sometimes, more than a dollar or a sandwich, a smile alone can sustain you, reminding you that you are connected and human and worthy.
And so when I was listening to S-Town, I realized, again, that people can surprise us if we let them. That whatever clothes they are wearing, whatever their address or accent or upbringing, there is often an inner history that holds the unexpected and sometimes the beautiful. John B., when we first meet him, sounds like one thing and opens and unfolds into something quite different. So much richer than what anyone could or would predict or know.
So I post this as an invitation–yes, to listen to S-Town if you haven’t already. It’s incredibly beautiful in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. But this is also an invitation to see those you encounter with fresh eyes. To know that they hold a story and history and hopes for the present and future that is theirs alone. And the only way they can share it with you is if you make some space and invite them to do so. I promise you, it’s the gift of a lifetime for everyone involved.