Monday, December 3, 2018

Dec 3: Colin Rafferty on Sound, Endings, and Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace

Once a week, I walk into the middle of my street and look up at the sky. I check the compass app on my phone to make sure I’m looking in the right direction, and then I wait. Eventually, I’ll see a bright light moving steadily across the sky.
  At this point, my heart rate increases. My body experiences the lightening that happens in moments of joy and terror, and I look around my neighborhood, hoping that someone walking a dog or leaving the restaurant down the block walks by so that I can point at the light in the sky, and say look! That light up there, moving! Do you see it? It’s the International Space Station! There are six people in there right now! It’s going about 17,000 miles an hour!
  Maybe it’s them humoring an odd middle-aged man pointing at the night sky, but no one I’ve stopped has ever looked up, seen the ISS, and not seemed at least a little amazed by it. We’ll stand there, together for a minute or two, and then they’ll go on their ways, with a little more wonder in their lives.
  My favorite thing about being an essayist is that capacity to maintain wonder at the world. To look at the things around me, to see how far and high and varied and absolutely mysterious (in both the secular and holy meanings of that word) the human experience has been and continues to be, in its zeniths and nadirs and in-betweens, has been the greatest part about writing nonfiction.

To call Nate DiMeo a podcaster is to miss the point. He does put out a podcast pretty regularly, and it sometimes shows up in the top hundred on the iTunes charts. But in the midst of all the Two Guys Talking podcasts, the OMG Murder podcasts, and the NPR But with Cussing podcasts, The Memory Palace, which DiMeo has produced since 2008, shines as a sterling example of what the audio essay might be in its best moments.
  For a long time, episodes lacked both advertisements and credits, suggesting an art for art’s sake approach to the form, which allowed DiMeo to focus on making audio nonfiction that doesn’t fit into any category. By the time he joined the Radiotopia network of podcasts and hired his first research assistant (thereby necessitating a credits sequence), his style and voice (or, I guess, his brand) was fully established with no need to bend away from the audience who had found it and fallen in love with DiMeo’s voice and subjects.
  DiMeo’s obsession is American History, by which I mean the full sweep of the thing, all the glories and tragedies, saints and sinners, heroes and villains. He especially seems to love a stretch around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a kind of era of innovation and invention and possibility, packed with amazing characters—but he’ll go back to colonial days and to the near-present (a recent episode recounted the 1986 doomed Cleveland Balloonfest) if the story is right. His subjects are all over the place; in one episode, he’ll plant a flag firmly in the Big Men theory of history and talk about presidents and generals, only to follow it up with the story of someone erased from history. His dual task seems to be to uncover the lost and to defamiliarize the known.
  The Memory Palace rewards binge-listening. DiMeo has thankfully avoided the episode-bloat that plagues so many podcasts, so episodes still hover in the teens of minutes, occasionally nosing into twenty-plus (and one “odd, pre-election episode,” an hour and thirty-nine minutes long, in which DiMeo read the entirety of Song of Myself). Listeners can uncover patterns in DiMeo’s podcast, a kind of house style of moves taken from both the essay and the radio. Perhaps the best element of nonfiction present in The Memory Palace is DiMeo’s ability to write an ending that taps into real emotion in the dusty corners of history.

A 2017 episode, “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs,” provides an example of the technique familiar to nonfiction in which the author connects seemingly unrelated things in a surprising way. The episode begins with a brief introduction of Detroit Tigers player Hank Greenberg, who led the league in walks in 1938 because, as DiMeo states, “no one wanted a Jew to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.” The story of Greenberg in 1938, a hero to Jewish Americans all over the country, is the frame for the story of Joseph Greenstein, a vaudeville performer better known as the Mighty Atom, who “drove nails through wood with his fist, bent straight metal rods into heart shapes, who broke chains with his bare hands—and who among us would deny his fans the metaphorical pleasures of watching a fellow Jew break chains with his bare hands?”
  At this point, DiMeo moves into a larger historical context of what was happening to the Jews of Europe in 1938, as the harassment and expulsion of Jews in Germany and its occupied territories was building to a fever pitch. He runs through a litany of offenses—how they were forbidden from practicing medicine and law, register their assets and businesses, and have a red J stamped on their passports. DiMeo mentions the burning of the synagogue in Nuremberg, pointing out that Hank Greenberg “went two for five that day.”
  The context reaches New York City, as DiMeo connects the European anti-Semitism of 1938 to the American anti-Semitism of 1938, telling his audience about American Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, the invective hurled by Father Coughlin, leading to the rally held in Madison Square Garden by the German-American Bund group, “swastikas and American flags, the Nazi eagle and George Washington, the red, white, and blue and the red and black,” with 22,000 Americans in attendance, giving the Nazi salute.
  After all this setting of context, not too far past the halfway point of the episode, DiMeo introduces the actual story, returning to the Mighty Atom walking past the arena after his own show, seeing a banner that incensed him, and running to a hardware store, which he “left with a ladder and a bat.” The Mighty Atom takes down the sign, and returns to the ground, with “twenty Nazis surrounding him, looking for a fight. So the Mighty Atom gave them one.”
  “And when it was over,” DiMeo says, “there were eighteen American Nazis on the way to the hospital, and there was one Jewish American walking home with only a black eye, and holding a baseball bat…”
  DiMeo pauses for three seconds—an eternity—before delivering what might seem like a punchline: “…a Hank Greenberg signature model Louisville Slugger.”
  In a lesser writer’s hand, this would feel too pat and ridiculous, and yet heard, instead of read, it’s a powerfully moving moment to hear—when we hear the three threads of this essay collide.

DiMeo’s work is often timely; the Hank Greenberg episode debuted in May of 2017, four months after the inauguration but three months before Charlottesville. Another example of this is the 2016 episode “A White Horse,” which DiMeo published four days after the Pulse shooting, and which again demonstrates his power to build to an ending. The essay concerns the White Horse Inn in Oakland, California, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the United States.
  The majority of the audio essay centers on the White Horse as the right place for generations of LGBTQ men and women—a place “where men talked to men by the fire place in the back; where women flirted with women in the light of the jukebox.” DiMeo describes how generations of people interacted in utterly normal, totally wonderful ways—a chance to be themselves despite the forces both legal and cultural arrayed against them.
  The crucial turn comes just before the eight minute mark. In a stunning display of anaphora, DiMeo takes us through the history of the gay rights movement, starting with the 1966 resistance by transgender women against police brutality across the bay in San Francisco, and working through all the history you might know and some you might not, beginning each sentence with “it was open,” setting up the White Horse Inn as a constant in LGBTQ life.
  After working through all the victories and setbacks, the legal shifts towards equality and the ravages of AIDS (“in one year alone, eight bartenders—eight—died of AIDS-related illnesses,” DiMeo says, the disbelief audible in his voice), after all this, he closes with the devastating “it was open on the Saturday in June when someone killed forty-nine people in Orlando, Florida, in a place like the White Horse, where people came to be who they were. And it was open on Sunday. And it’s open tonight. It’ll be open tomorrow.”

The barriers to recording our own audio work are lower than they’ve ever been. Many of us carry a device that can capture the sounds around us and have access to a machine better than the home four-tracks of amateurs in the 1990s. Libraries offer professional-grade equipment for checkout, and the prices to own one’s gear continues to drop. Software to edit audio is free to use and relatively easy to learn (and certainly easier than literally cutting magnetic tape).
  As writers, we think a lot about audio elements—voice and effect and rhythm—but the print essay remains a visual medium. By taking advantage of the possibilities for the audio essay that DiMeo suggests to us in The Memory Palace, we can restore that sense of wonder to our lives, and once again stare at the sky in awe, open the advent calendar with delight, and listen to the world around us with open ears.

Colin Rafferty is the author of Hallow This Ground, published in 2016 by Break Away Books/Indiana University Press. He teaches at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. More of his work is available at

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