Episode 61: Podcast Saga Part 14 - The Not-Time-Restricted Train to Anywhere


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            If I am to be completely honest with you all—and I do try to be—there was a huge chunk of my life in which I regarded science fiction with a great deal of disinterest if not outright contempt. And that’s something that is both embarrassing to admit and hard to explain. The latter point is made relevant by the former. I mean for the sake of my pride, I want to dismiss this as youthful ignorance or a misunderstanding. Anything that we can move on from, but for me to do that, I have to provide information that is necessary but not within my grasp. And that’s always fun.

            Maybe you remember that I was a contrarian-type person when I was growing up. I disliked things that were popular because it was the easy way to make an identity for myself. To actually construct something was going to involve emotional labor that I wasn’t ready to do or wasn’t capable of doing at that point in my life. Knowing that, you might think is happening here. I saw that sci-fi was something that my peers liked or even loved, and with that knowledge I decided that this wasn’t for me. I arbitrarily picked a position that set me apart from everyone else, ignoring the fact that I was facing them for absolutely no reason. I mean, it’s not a far-fetched explanation. That attitude explains a lot about my earlier years and my relationship with media when I was in high school, but believe me when I say that it stops short on explaining my skepticism with sci-fi.

            Looking back, though, it might be easier for me to argue that was part of it, even if that doesn’t make sense with what I’m about to say. You see, there was science-fiction media in my life, but it was mostly in the pop culture realm. So it was met with the contrarian attitude. But that attitude—for once—was bolstered by something I was learning. Whether I was being deliberately taught it or not.

I was getting a certain impression from my English classes. Namely, that sci-fi done well was worthwhile, it was just seldom done well.

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            And, once again, that might not have been a deliberate lesson. It might have just be an accident of the norms and expectations latent in the American high school system. Brave New World is the only explicitly science fiction novel I read. It’s the only one grouped in the so-called classical sense of classics. So–called because that’s what I just called it, and maybe you know what I’m talking about. But there just seems like a set of standard books that you can reference or make a joke about how reading them was a not great experience, and if you’re in a group of people who were also brought up in the American school system, they’ll at least know what you’re talking about, even if they don’t think it was funny.

            To be fair to whatever mysterious force curated that library, Brave New World greatly influenced pretty much everything science fiction that came after it. So I can see it being a strategic choice.

            However, there’s more out there than that. And to clarify, there was the occasional short story in the curriculum, but even when we branched out to other forms of media—usually movies—there still wasn’t that much science fiction to consider. And I did put a great deal of trust in my teachers. Sometimes—in other subjects—this trust turned out to be misplaced. But other times it just ignored all the constraints my teachers were operating within.

            Because here’s the thing. Those aforementioned strategic choices had to be made to fit enough into the curriculum. Hence Brave New World. I mean, there was a lesson there I could have learned, and it’s my fault that I didn’t pay attention.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 61.

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            And no, I’m not talking about Brave New World in this episode. It’s a “podcast saga.” What were you thinking? Well, okay, I am talking about it, but it’s not the focus. I do think it’s important, though, because it allows me to point out the lesson that I missed at the time that I now cling to passionately. Remember, what I said about Brave New World being an influence for everything that came after. Well, here’s part of what I meant by that.

            Brave New World used new, although imagined, technologies to create something like a mirror of our own world with these new gadgets as the reflexive points. Or it can magnify problems. It all depends on where we stand on what. But regardless, science fiction uses fictional science to show us something or various things about our current lives that we don’t notice right away. It’s all underneath the surface. And it’s through these forms of media that it can it can come to lights

            I didn’t realize that until I started getting into podcasts. Specifically audio fiction.

You see, there’s a lot of sci-fi in podcasting. There’s a lot of science fiction out there full stop. But like I keep saying. Podcasting made a lot of storytelling possible, and of all the mediums readily available to potential science fiction creators, podcasting could be the most appealing what with a somewhat defined indie community. And I say “somewhat” just to cover all my bases.

            But for the next couple of weeks, I want to go into what I consider the best science fiction podcasts or the ones that I think have stuck with me the most. Really the ones that stuck with me the most. This is my show after all.

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            Having said that, The 12:37 is a podcast led by Alma Roda-Gil. And I’m probably mispronouncing that. I’m sorry. I have limited talents, and pronouncing things is not one of them. And I really feel bad for butchering the name of a fellow creator in this space who is making something I love. I just can’t. Exist. Well. All The Time.

But setting that aside for now, The 12:37 is about the adventures of a scientist named Nora who was once having a particularly bad day. A day that was so bad that not only did she get on the wrong train, she ended up on a train she can’t exactly get off of. Because, you know, that’s one thing you can do when you get on the wrong train. You get off on the next stop and recalculate your travel home. It’s annoying, but I mean, it can be done with minimal inconvenience.

            Our new friend Nora the scientist, however, doesn’t have this option. Because this train time travels, and our GPS apps haven’t developed that function yet. Or maybe they have and I just haven’t done the update yet. Hang on one moment. (Pause). Nope. Still nothing.

            I mean, there’s more going on than that. Nora also can’t leave because there’s this whole mission and a bunch of people who want to undermine it. Look, it’s complicated. But to simplify, it’s the wrong train at the wrong time. Time in multiple sense…. And that seemed so clever in my head.

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            Cue adventures. In short. But that’s not the part of the show that stuck with me the most, no matter how much I liked it. You see, that involved listening, obviously, but before I got to that point, The 12:37 was sitting in my podcast cue for a while. It seemingly just appeared without warning out of nowhere. Or without a source I can easily remember. And that might seem strange, but it’s something that happens a lot. That’s the thing about my podcasting habits. The podcasts in my player tend to multiple without my knowledge.

            But beyond that observation and the sneaking suspicion that I am not in control of my own podcast player, which could lead to an existential spiral if I’m not careful, this also means that I often have more time to sit with a show’s premise than someone else would. To the point that it stops being something meant to lure me in and starts to become a piece of content in of itself. Though to be fair to me, that line was likely always a bit blurry. I’m not going to argue that here, though.

            But when I was trying to decide what to listen to, I would pull up the info screen on Player FM and read it over a couple times, mulling it over in my head.

“After she accidentally ends up on a time-travelling train,” I read constantly.

            And then my brain just ran with it.

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            Nora became a scientist some time before the story. And good for her on that. Genuinely. You can tell she’s worked hard to get where she is and that’s she put a lot of work into this. In fact, she’s done quite a bit with her life, I would say. She’s overcome a lot. And that’s not even being generous. It’s more factual than you might be inclined to think. Every step forward in our lives comes with its own challenges, and even though we might get celebration fatigue if we do it too much, that doesn’t mean things aren’t worth celebrating.

            But on the other hand, it might not matter how much we have done because life will still get a few hits in. It still has its moments. It doesn’t matter how many boxes you check off; there will always be other problems on the horizons. Or challenges. Or honest mistakes that have far reaching ramifications. This time, it’s the latter. In her stressed and slightly disoriented state, Nora got on the wrong train. It happens. All the time. But this time, it happened to be the SUPER wrong train, but that’s just a characteristic unique to the train. If it you keep it general, these things happen. These things have happened to me! I’ve gotten on the wrong bus multiple times on my way to work, and then I have to take what I lovingly refer to as “the Lyft of shame” to get to the office on time to make sure the coffee has been started for the day. And then I’ll stand there as people come in and joke about my absentminded nature. And usually people meet my stories with those of their own. And in the stress, we find some way to connect and bond with each other. With the people we always see, just never in that light.

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            But unfortunately for her, Nora ended up on this time travelling train. And yes, she can’t take a Lyft of shame home. She can’t leave at all. But she can make something like a life for herself on the train while she’s stuck there. And there’s two different ways she could go about it. She could sulk, but that’s beneath Nora’s resilient nature. She’s more than that. She can seize that impulse. She can have a lab, friends, more than friends, and genuinely happy moments. It stops being about her making do, though she is certainly do plenty of that. She’s met this odd turn of her life in stride. And she’s making something wonderful out of it. And by “wonderful,” I mean a series of happy moments because we don’t always get those, do we?

            There’s something remarkably familiar about this struggle. Even if there are extra gadgets involved. Or—more accurately—even if it was the extra gadgets that got us to see a common experience so trivial that we’re likely to run from it. The train was the mirror. It was the magnifying lens. And yes, those are different things, but I can’t say which one metaphor works best for you, so I’m offering them both.

            But these are parallel tracks, I guess, so maybe we shouldn’t get too worried if we get on the wrong one? Maybe we should, though. It might be worth double checking.

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            Personally, I think there’s something profound about that idea. And fortunately, it’s not just found in the premise. This idea of coming back from—not so much a setback—but from an unexpected left turn is all over the show. And, yes I was looking for it, and I know, I know, when you look at something it’s even more obvious, but set that aside for now.

            Because here’s the thing. You can focus on the adventures and the plot, and still enjoy the podcast. And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But that wasn’t exactly what I was inclined to do, and this is my turn to talk. I saw this idea—imprinted with it—and suddenly separation became impossible. But also, it’s what life is, isn’t it? Rolling with the punches of a cruel and unfeeling cosmos sometimes without a clear safety net. Increasingly without a clear safety net. Especially when you land in new places out of necessity, not carefully considered choices.

            Like what happens all the time nowadays, you could say. I mean, I’ve said this before, but if you don’t remember I think of modern life as being one defined by motion. New jobs in new places with new people you might have never met otherwise. Or you’re returning to familiar circumstances, places, and people that you weren’t supposed to see again now that you’re taking on roles that you were never going to take, but hey, it happened. No matter what, things seldom go as you expect them to. We don’t have the consistency and certainty that past generations did.

            Ultimately what governs our lives aren’t even our desires or preferences but the somewhat vague and menacing principle known as “utility.” In its pursuit, quite a bit has been lost. For better or worse, the boundaries or roots that once restrained us were chopped away. And look, I’m glad I left the home I was raised in. I’m sure a bunch of us are. I mean it when I say it wasn’t all bad, but sometimes, as a result, we can be left feeling lonely. Or we are lonely. We can be left feeling scared or upset. Lost, adrift. Many things.

            I’m not saying this is where anxiety and depression come from, if you were wondering. Maybe because you’ve listened to the show yourself and are thinking of another time Nora had to rise to an occasion. It happens pretty early on in the show, you know. Hint. Hint. But no, that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s more of a general sort of principle. I just think we’ve lost some of the things that could have cushioned the fall a little bit. But we find new ones. In time. New people. New rocks in these new stages in our life. Like podcasting or its indie community.

            Look, it’s hard to say whether or not Nora genuinely was better off for stumbling onto the train. There are certainly things she needed and no longer has. As well as other things that she now has to deal with that her life could have been fine without. But she’s taking it in stride. Like we all have to.

            And I think that’s the main reasons why I love this show so much. To clarify, I think Nora and this point of connection between me and her kept me anchored in this world. Better than the fictional science, which I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with regardless. Look, I know world building is important, but you can have the most elaborate backdrop and if the foreground is just a person hopping on a pogo stick, I’m not going to stick around for the two-hour- runtime. That’s just a personal preference. I mean, with seven billion people on the planet, odds are someone would disagree, but no, I have my preferences.

            And I think many of us do. But for most people, we need a reason to care about the stories we read or—in this case—hear. And in a media-saturated-age, this is more pressing of a concern. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t a bunch of other show out there with more launching every day to the point that it may feel like there’s too much out there. I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, but I understand where it comes from.

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            Ultimately, though, our desire for stories maybe can’t be so easily sequestered or distinguished from our other impulses. Like the one we have for connection. Human connection, ideally. After all, we aren’t meant to be solitary creatures. It’s just not something we can handle. In fact, I think we’re inclined to call it torture in certain circumstances.

            So what if we could find a distinctly human story. A story that shows or mirrors something about us. Let’s say it’s an impulse. If not a guarantee that no matter how challenging or absurd things get, we can find ourselves back on our feet, find a new normal and make it one we can be content with.  

            It’s hard to talk about this show without spoiling anything. Revelation is part of it, but this is what I want to say. Riding on this train is, well, a ride. It’s a journey that, I think, goes along the arc I’m describing. You pull out the station of panic and go out on your way. You take on challenges. You do the best you can. You come out on the other side. It’s a trajectory we all go on in our own time.

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            I know I’ve told this story before, but here we are. Personally, my moment of (quote) “getting on the wrong train” was when I entered a master’s program that was designed specifically to give people who wanted to go on for their PhDs a leg up in the process. They then were to become academics. Which I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do. I signed up for the program because I liked that it was in the big city. I liked that it gave me a chance to move to a place I had dreamed of living in.

            No, this wasn’t “the imposter syndrome” they kept warning us about. I genuinely didn’t belong there by sheer virtue of not really wanting to be there. And if you’re expecting a grand narrative arc and epiphany, I never really had one, considering I knew this was a mistake during orientation week. But by then, I had paid for the first semester, and it was, like an 18 month program, so the train had left the station. (Pause.) Is that a pun?

            The actual or only point I can muster is this: namely that sometimes these things happen. But they happen to everyone. We should see that. We should realize that. And yes, we should have stories to this end.

            I’ve said this a lot, but it’s because I always think it’s worth repeating. I think we’re under intense to look or present as perfect, but really despite the fact that we all do it, it’s just a lie with a lot of extra steps. And it’s a waste of all those extra steps. Subtle and indirect confessions to the contrary can help chip this façade away. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing. So it can always help to have a little nudge.

            So yeah, The 12:37 is a podcast that really needed to exist. So go ahead and celebrate that. Get listening.

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