Realizations in the Light of Theo Balcomb

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re in a room you have absolutely no right to be in? That was me tonight. But the most unusual aspect was that I was invited by the person being honored. 

Her name is Theo Balcomb and she’s the creator and head of The Daily from the New York Times. The podcast , which started in 2017, was celebrating reaching a billion downloads–yes, you read that correctly, not streams, downloads. One billion. Now, tonight, when I watched her face in a way that would be awkward than if she weren’t being given accolades, it made so much sense to me as to why she had garnered the admiration from the US’s most storied news source as she did. 

To explain that, I have to explain what I know of her. I’ve known Theo for a shockingly short amount of time. Particularly for having been invited to that evening. Even more so, I have never known her in a professional context, so that is not how I shall speak of her. I’ve only known her as a person. As a person, she has greeted me with nothing but overly eager eyes and extremely welcome ‘hello’s’. She has responded to what I have had to say, from tellings of origins of depression and the complexities of being a black American woman abroad to frustrations of New York City wine distributors and opinions on Nicky Cage, with an outrageously fair and even ear. The things I had to say were certainly neither always fair nor even. Oftentimes her listening was decorated with an understanding nod that never corroborated sentiments (though I fucking hope she shared them sometimes) but rather let me know she was there, she was listening. That’s honestly as I know her: a welcome person who is both a safe space and welcoming receptacle for whatever bullshit I want to throw her way under the pretense of “this is my life.”

I guess the best way to say it is that she isn’t exactly like but also not entirely unlike a mother figure saying “I’m listening.” When people go to their mother figures, it’s not to find a partner in crime. It never has been. It’s to find someone who will openly and willingly hear your side of the story–even if you‘re wrong. It’s about speaking to someone who cares even though they may not entirely relate or understand. 

I think this is why I was staring at her face all night. I mean, she is good-looking and was THE lady of honor so it’s not weird, but I think shortly after she took the stage to commemorate the rest of the team, it became clear to me as to why she was there. Why it was HER. Again, I don’t know Theo in a professional context, but I know the environment she creates. If she looks at the news–and all the peripheral pieces of it that make the Daily what it is–the way she looks at me, she gives people meaning. She gives details in a story meaning. She cares about all the random facts that came together to make something that thing. It is for precisely that reason that she can highlight it. She gives stories dimension. When she looks at me, no matter what bullshit story I’m telling, I feel multi-dimensional. I feel important. 

Tonight, I saw within that room, all the ways she has made her gaze, her outlook, transfer through other people. I’ve seen how she’s given the news dimension. How she’s given people so removed from our everyday a depth that we’ve swum in. I saw how she has inserted bits of herself into the stories and that is what have made them more human.

As I said in the beginning, I had no right to be in that room. But I feel so privileged for having the opportunity. If that doesn’t sum up her podcast, I don’t know what does. 

Thank you, Theo. Thank you. 

Necessary Monsters

There is a website I take great joy in. I visit it periodically when I need a little creative nudge  and want to dip my toe in a rabbit hole of the absurd. On their “About” page, they have a quote from Jorge Luis Borges about how the dragon was imagined by man as a way to test our limits. From the depths of our creative mind we created an idea of something so evil and foreign that it takes great courage–and likely teamwork–to face. Borges calls dragons “a necessary monster.”

The site I go to is called the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments. It is exactly as it sounds. It is a lovely dive into instruments that don’t exist yet have been created–somehow. What draws me to this site is that it is an archive entirely concerned with what could be not with what is or was. In a way you could call it a museum of optimism.

 In reading of these instruments – the sound machine, the cat piano, the torture tron, Euphonia or the ocular Harpsichord to name a few – they become real. I create their non-existent sounds in my head. It forces me to conjure sounds I’ve never heard before, an impressive and difficult feat. Because imaginary sounds aren’t just louder versions of what you already know, they’re not discordant mash-ups of what already exists…but something else entirely. You have to imagine something you’ve never known, something you’ll likely never encounter.

I feel like it’s this push that relates to Borges’ necessary monster…it forces us to confront ourselves, acknowledge boundaries and, perhaps most importantly, conjure what lies beyond them.

I turned 30 earlier this month. It’s not a big deal but it’s also a big deal. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found myself contemplating imaginary boundaries made real quite a bit as of late.  Like many of these instruments, the importance of this birthday is no more than any other birthday but by naming it, it becomes something else we create something else. 30 signifies an entrance into real adulthood, it’s a nod to youth’s demise and a milestone by which many people feel they should have “it” figured out.

Now I’m wondering if these imagined milestones are also a necessary monster. They force us to confront ourselves and acknowledge our boundaries–we take critical inventory of our lives and what we’ve built. But it also forces us to conjure what was expected of ourselves, to look beyond. In my imaginary things logic, a milestone should result in concocting all the possibilities of what could be.

My life as a 30-year-old with a house and a perfect job doesn’t exist any more than the ocular harpsichord. But in imagining it, my mind is required to define it. And to think beyond it.

In imagining a dragon, you must also imagine its weaknesses. You imagine the whole thing. We don’t realize how hard at work we are when creating a dragon. It’s peculiar how much man reflects the most vulnerable parts of our mortality in the image of a dragon: fire, size, flight, crazy teeth, living in dark caves, etc…all very real threats to human capability. We concoct a literal mortal enemy. It shows us what we’re afraid of, but it exists only in our heads. Where we fight it–tooth and nail, flaming torches and fearless princes–until we overcome.

If the fear of facing this new era is also what makes me work harder, better, smarter towards living my imagined joy, then I kind of like it.