Try Listening to Yourself Like Studs Terkel Would

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones’ newsletters.Reeling from Lorrie Moore’s withering review of my generation in the New York Review of Books via a Sally Rooney takedown—is Moore right? Is she dead wrong? Is it both?! Why am I weeping?!—I needed a boost.
So I went to Ben Fountain, who wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which I loved) and who has a new short story in the Oxford American called “Cane Creek.” It’s lovely. It’s also about death. I felt, again, wrecked by a writer; sentences like this tore me up: “If asked, she would have said this was what she knew from fifty-five years of life, the distillation of everything she’d learned from parents, teachers, lovers, books, three children, one miscarriage, and a problematic marriage of some thirty years: when someone dies who you are close to, their death brings other things close for a time.”
I needed, instead, the cheery old-person bliss. Or something close to that—whatever it is that makes a writer the kind of person who can describe something horrific with bubbly curiosity, or pinpoint the world’s failings with a laugh. My main sources for this are Mel Brooks, Oliver Sacks, and Studs Terkel. I decided to look through the Mother Jones archive to see if we have any good stuff in that vein in the dusty cupboard. I found something much better than I even expected: a 1995 interview with Terkel—the famous oral historian, radio interviewer, and seeming mensch of the working class.
First of all, it begins with him hating on the internet! I love it. It’s very 1995. And, I think, still probably right: 

The trouble with me and the Internet is that it’s about facts and figures and information. But without the flesh and blood and the breathing that goes on, who am I talking to? What do they look like? Is it a multitude? Are there 25 people there? Who is that scraggly kid? The old woman there with a cane? That part–the human touch, that’s what’s missing.

The whole interview, and Terkel’s dogged obsession with the idea that everyone—everyone—is a person with a story to tell, especially in America, made me hopeful. And it made me miss strangers. Do you remember walking around, bumping shoulders, someone talking loudly within 6 feet so you could overhear their stories (and gossip about it at a bar, also within 6 feet)? That was great! I miss it. Some days I miss it with an unhelpful pang. Some days I miss it by pretending that any feeling of dismay midlockdown is dumb. Some days I indulge and miss it by complaining to my friends in ways that are annoying.
Someone like Terkel would probably listen to me, and you, and all of us, with a glint of recognition and ask, if we could, to say just a little bit more about that.

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