A Ladder That’s Forever

This American Life has become one of my favorite reasons to hop into a car and drive somewhere. Sitting alone in a hunk of metal, hurling down the highway at 65 (okay 75) miles per hour is a generally relaxing experience for me. Driving with great radio is merely what helps me endure the traffic and dodging the occasional Chrysler Sebring convertible. The road is fine, but the sound helps me forget about everyone else on it.

Unlike many of the podcasts and other media I consume, This American Life lacks a specific theme. They have episodes about family and politics and yes, sometimes sports, but I don’t download it every week expecting to hear any one thing. It’s the quality of the stories that keeps me coming back.

I think good stories are underrated. We gravitate towards an article or website because the topic interests us and often forget about the quality of what we’re being told or how it’s presented. The hook is rarely “This was really well done,” but rather “You usually like this kind of thing.”

Too often we settle for narratives or sources that offer us little quality. Our hyperactive news consumption is based more on speed and immediacy than the utility or merit of the story itself. It’s an equation we rarely think about, but one that clearly impacts what we consume and discuss. What we read and think about quickly becomes what we value.

A typical local media narrative is unearthing a ‘local’ angle on a larger, national story. This is an incredibly narrow-minded and trivial way to deliver the news. It’s an easy, lazy thing to do that gets lots of eyeballs, though, so it’s never going away.

The problem is our perception of ‘local’ can change on command. It can be as big or as small as you like. I’ve written about this before, but when good things happen our sense of local becomes larger. We move to envelop the good news for the sake of this “local” narrative.

Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte was born in Canandaigua, but since he can win a gold medal or two he is from ‘Western New York.’ An archer from Elma, Jake Kaminski, wins a silver medal and we celebrate our Hometown Hero despite the fact that most could never locate Elma on a map if they were given four years to do so, which is the next time they will care about archery.

Civic and national pride are things to be celebrated, but when you rush to care about something innocuous based solely on proximity it feels silly. Especially when that proximity can fluctuate at will. Consider this the next time you instinctively distance yourself from an overnight shooting in “Buffalo” by reminding yourself you live in the suburbs. Buffalove, indeed.

This week’s episode of This American Life was excellent. Called, Show Me the Way, the program told three stories about people looking for help in the worst or strangest of places. The introduction was about a man confiding in a bad a lawyer, but Act I was the show’s centerpiece.

Just South of the Unicorns is about a boy who runs away from home. His home is Buffalo, and he tries to find happiness elsewhere. So he leaves in search of an author who he idolizes.

Part of the story takes place in Buffalo, but it is rarely mentioned. There are no specifics — you never even hear the boy’s last name — but the weather comes up, as does how far away the airport is from city limits. That’s about it.

The reason you haven’t heard much about this episode locally is that it doesn’t take a swipe at Buffalo or say anything that people can express outraged about. This American Life will not be seen on your local news anytime soon.

The boy from Buffalo doesn’t leave because of where he lives, but rather what he’s living through. It’s a story about growing up, not just about where you grow up. That’s what makes it universal and, ultimately, an excellent piece of storytelling. Everyone can relate because it isn’t about any one place.

Just South of the Unicorns is a good story that happens to be related to Buffalo, and I think that alone is worth sharing. In the fragile ecosystem that is Buffalo, our first instinct is to talk about things that talk about Buffalo. Focusing on things that are good would be so much more productive. It’s a lot to ask for from the media, to stray from what’s worked for so long, but among ordinary citizens it doesn’t seem impossible.

There will be no followup on the 32.5 minute story mentioned above. There will be no television interviews with his parents or the teachers at his former high school, no somber-looking reporters asking Tough Questions about how a little boy could grow up so unhappy.

“Isn’t this the City of Good Neighbors?” will be a question that goes unasked, kept in a safe place until the next time something tragic happens relatively close to the metro area. Instead, Logan Hill’s story about a friend will go in the archives of a radio show as a great story about dreams, dragons and growing up different.

The Buffalo part of the tale isn’t important. Just like with most stories.