by barbara mcveigh
“Thank you for your service to public radio” Michael Krasny of KQED’s Forum Radio Show penned into his book Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life for me when I met him last year.
Public service. It made me look at my experience at KQED as an intern fifteen years ago in a completely different way. Public service. And, here I always thought the studio did me a big favor. It changed the way I look at the world and how I move in it.
To begin with, I couldn’t believe I got that six month internship which turned into a two year experience. All the interns in my group seemed smarter, came from better schools, or powerful families, were gifted writers, or so it all seemed to me. As interns we’d be given the task to book guests for panel discussions about major events locally or in the world. We’d schedule poets, film directors, writers and community leaders who were moving culture, challenging society with political, educational, religious or sexual ideas.
Aside from scheduling guests and preparing shows, we’d have to greet the guests and lead them to the studio for their morning interview with Michael. And, if we were lucky, we’d have a few morsels of time to talk to the guests alone. After a month or so, I was beginning to enjoy this new license of asking questions besides whether guests wanted a cup of coffee. It took time, as I learned people like to talk about themselves. Still I’d often feel the guests were merely being polite to me, the proverbial pig tailed intern. But, there were a few exceptions and those are the ones who left their mark on me.
Waiting for the studio’s cue, I waited with the Film Director Mike Leigh soon after Secrets and Lies hit it big in theaters. It was a gorgeous film about an English white birth mother meeting her adult black daughter years after the mum had put her up for adoption as a baby. The mother has to reconcile the truth of a choice she once made. After denial and conflict, a beautiful relationship emerges.
I tried asking Mike questions about the film to kill the time we had before his interview with Michael, but he was too busy asking ME questions, ones mixed with sincere interest. One of the first questions he asked was whether I was a writer. It just so happened I was writing a lot. I was attending writers’ groups with Tamim Ansary and Joe Quirk, who have since gone on to be excellent writers. The children’s book author Bryna Stevens at age 72 was one my best friends – and an unlikely mentor. I’d hang for hours in her tiny San Francisco studio which was filled with crocheted purses, dust and yellow music sheets of piano music. We talked writing.
So, I told Mike I was trying to write, but I struggled. I wrote about so many different things, but everything was mediocre and most stories never got finished. Each was disconnected from the other. Mike was thoughtfully quiet for a moment. Then as he was being pulled into the studio to begin his interview with Michael, he turned to me to finish his thought, “They are all connected, if they all came from you.”
He should have just walloped me over the head. It would have been gentler inspiration.
After interning with Michael for a year I moved to the news room where I got to work with reporters Kevin Guillery, David Wright and Jason Beaubien who towered over me like lords of journalism, or so I felt. They were my heroes who could get in front of Nancy Pelosi, Quentin Kopp or Willie Brown and shoot hard questions at them and then, with a snap of their fingers, craft balanced news stories weaving together ambient sounds with important truths and perspectives. They were kind to me as I tagged along, helping them with recordings. They were unlike my editor Cy Musiker who was not kind. How he pushed me, yanked me and made me polish stories laboriously for hours. Writing news did not come easy for me.
When I finally had my first decent piece, Cy, along with opinionated Executive Director Raul Ramirez and the strict engineer locked me up in the sound room to record it for a one minute spot to air the next day. My heart thumped out of my throat. I was not made for this, I reassured myself. Some people glide into this profession. Not me. I didn’t want it, but why did I stay?
For two hours I remained in a closed room that lacked oxygen to work on my radio voice so I could produce a story and share my mediocrity with the masses.
I began to read my story. “Stop. Do it again,” they coached. So, I did, “Deeper this time. Slower.” Then, “Again. Say it like you mean it.” After about the 50th try of “lower,” “higher”, “slower,” “faster” and so on. I looked at the three of them behind the glass with such built up hatred and vengeance. I was tired of being pushed. Under my breath, I spit out every expletive I’ve ever learned, combined with some new ones. I wanted to kill them. And, I swore I would before storming out of the studio while screaming “I quit!” It’d be dramatic.
I repeated my story, slowly, with strong hatred flowing between syllables, intentional words wrapped with evil thoughts. Then I finished my piece, “. . . and for KQED Radio News, this is Barbara McVeigh”.
All three looked at me in silence. I think it was Cy who said it first with a hint of a smile. “That’s it! That’s the voice!”
His horns began to disappear. My writing improved.
The Academy Awards had just been announced, and Cy sent me to Berkeley to interview a guy named Mark O’Brien who was the subject of a film that had just won Best Documentary. All I knew was this guy was handicapped and had an iron lung, whatever that meant, and his film was called Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work by Mark O’Brien by Jessica Woo. I’d wing the interview, I figured. I was not going to lose this spot. Be reminded, this was all before internet days, and information was difficult to find.
I arrived at a small bottom studio in the middle of Berkeley. I had checked my sound equipment thoroughly to record the interview. My pen and pad were ready to go. I felt completely prepared wearing my professional journalism hat. That’s when I lost it.
Inside a body lay horizontal on a guerney-like bed with a large cylindrical tube encircling the body, arms and legs. A head stuck out with drool running down the lips. The head had a voice, “Come in!.”
I stood before a “brain in a jar” human specimen. I had never before met anyone so severely handicapped.
“Hey, there, do you have a boyfriend, because I’m looking for a girlfriend.” Mark O’Brien said to me. “You’re kinda cute. What’s your name?” I had to laugh. It became clear he know how to put people at ease. He had had polio as a four year old child, leaving his body paralyzed, and this “iron lung” contraption that encased his body had been giving him breath for 40 years. Otherwise, he would be dead.
We talked. I had so many questions for him. He read his poetry to me. He shared pictures, writings and his dreams. He asked for me to put a stick in his mouth which he used to turn pages in a book of poetry or tap his keyboard letter by letter to write stories, articles and more. He told me the wonder of being touched once by a surrogate sex therapist, as he had never before been touched intimately. It had made him cry. He laughed about silly things and told jokes. He was more actively alive and living a fuller life than most people I know who have an entire, healthy body. How can anyone complain or make an excuse about not doing what they want to do? There are no such excuses.
I eventually went on to do other things in my life, though I continue to listen to Michael’s shows and the journalists reportings from around the world. I loved reading Michael’s book about so many inspirational people. Mark died just a couple years ago. And, though I try to live my life asking hard questions, seeking truths and understanding perspectives, I cast aside my own writing.
Recently while cleaning the garage, a box seemingly emerged from the deep dark corner. Inside I found a recording of that interview with Mark O’Brien. It’s like being confronted by an unfortunate decision I made long ago, a truth, an uncomfortable truth that I’ve been denying. And, now it’s facing me again.
Mike Leigh was right. The connections are all there.