When it comes to podcasts, I need a 12-step program.
I counted this morning, and I regularly or semi-regularly keep up with 16 of them. There are dozen and dozens of more that had a limited run that I plowed through at some point over the last seven or eight years.
My addiction is a delightful mix of:
- Murder (Serial Killers, Last Podcast on the Left, Criminal)
- Comedy (Mega, My Dad Wrote a Porno, Is We Dumb)
- Learnin’ (Timesuck, Hidden Brain, Reveal, No Dogs in Space)
- Fantasy (The Adventure Zone, Not Another D&D Podcast, Hello From the Magic Tavern)
My sister-in-law and I regularly text each other with new podcast finds — she let me know last week about one called “You’re Wrong About” that is next up for me.
This week, I was a guest on a podcast for the first time.
Writing? Yes. Public Speaking? Um…
I make a living telling other people’s stories. This is what I was born to do. If I’m not doing it professionally, I’m finding ways to do it personally. This blog is part of a larger site that is a developing experiment on storytelling. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years simply being creative.
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It had been a long time since I shared my story — or, at least, the main story that has defined my life more than any other. My first son, Jacob, was born and died on Dec. 20, 2000. When his birthday came around at the end of last year, it was stunning to me that two decades had past. There are times it is still so now, when the air is chilled just so and the breeze bites my cheeks exactly like it did when I went outside the hospital the day after my wife and I finished running what had been a marathon of heartbreak for four months — the time between when we found out something was wrong with our baby and the few short hours we got to hold him in our arms before he died.
For about 13 years after that marathon, I shared Jacob’s story often. Writing about it during the marathon and after it was finished was a form of free therapy. I would go into our computer room, just across the hall from what was still decorated as Jacob’s nursery, and my heart would spill out through my fingers onto keys that turned pressure into words on a screen. The nights would grow darkest and then light would begin to peer over the horizon outside the window as I wrote and wrote and wrote, tears flowing freely down my cheeks while my wife slept in our bedroom down the hall.
Jacob’s Story was published in 2002. My author’s copies arrived, ironically enough, on the day we arrived home with Jacob’s brother, Joey, born healthy and happy and now a nearly 19-year-old college student at the University of Missouri.
My wife and I sat there on the family room floor, the first box of books open, Joey sleeping the sleep only newborns know, still in his car seat by our sides.
And then I was asked to speak about all this. In public. In front of people.
I hated public speaking. I was the kid in school who turned beet-red at any perceived embarrassment. Speaking in front of people was a huge trigger because I had something of a stutter when I was nervous. It still crops up from time-to-time when I’m under a ton of pressure. The thought of getting up in front of strangers and talking about the death of my son was something I did not want to do. Ever.
Except ya know that quiet, peaceful place inside of you that sometimes pipes up and speaks to you, telling you something that is completely foreign to who you are? Maybe you don’t. But that’s what happened to me. I was driving home from work at the newspaper for which I served as publisher back then, and that still, small voice said, “You’re going to have a chance to speak about your son.” No, it wasn’t audible, and I truly don’t know enough about the reality of God to say it was Him.
So when the opportunity came to speak at a banquet for a fundraiser for a pregnancy care center in front of 500 or so people in the town where I worked, I said “Yes.”
And then I immediately regretted it.
A part of me hoped that maybe just maybe I would die before the night arrived. Or at least get kidnapped by terrorists. Yes, I worked on what I was going to say and even made a video to drive home the reality that was Jacob, but a huge part of me thought the speech was never going to happen, that I would pass out before I said my first word.
Except I did speak. And it went well. What I said, who Jacob was, reached people. It made a difference in their lives. It changed them. It brought them together. Jacob had been doing that all along, before he was even born, uniting a diverse, fractured group of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions for a common good. I was and am proud of my son for that and it has become my life’s mission to overcome divisiveness and spread unity among people as much as one middle-aged man in Missouri can.
So I spoke about Jacob again. And again. And again. Each time, I thought I was going to throw up just before I took the stage or the podium. But each time that feeling was just a little bit less intense.
Snowstorm Rocky Changes Things
The successes telling Jacob’s story helped me be more confident when I left newspapers and landed my first marketing/communications job, a job that entailed a wide variety of public speaking opportunities. Suddenly, I started to not just think about surviving being up in front of a crowd but how I could actually improve and be better when I was up in front of a crowd.
Then, in late February 2013, while I was the communications manager for Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Mo., Snowstorm Rocky blasted our service territory. The heavy, wet snow fell fast and hard. Its weight caused power lines to sag and poles to snap. More than half of our cooperative’s membership was suddenly without power.
Now, I had never been trained in crisis communication. But I am blessed with an uncanny instinct for people. If anything is a “God thing” with me, that’s it. So I started doing what I felt like I should do. Primarily, I used this new tool in the electric cooperative sphere called Facebook to start talking directly with our members. It was ironic, because about a month before I had spoken to a group of electric cooperative general managers about the use of social media, and the topic hadn’t been how to use it most effectively but why you should start using it. Electric cooperative leaders and board members aren’t exactly the most progressive folks, and the arguments back then largely revolved around “What if someone says something negative on there?” My answer was simple: “You deal with it. I’d rather them talk there where I can address it than somewhere where I’m not.”
For the next five days, I worked at least 16 hours a day. I would go out into the field to find our linemen to bring them food, coffee, news and to film them doing what they were doing in the conditions they were doing it in. Then I’d edit and produce short videos to upload to Facebook so our followers, which grew exponentially during the outage, could see what it was actually like out there, that there were real people dealing with this crisis.
You’d expect people who are without power for five days in the middle of winter to get grumpy, and many, in fact, did. But on Facebook we created a community of survivors who lifted up and supported each other and our employees the entire way. When someone piped up with “What are those linemen even doing????” they were quickly and strongly shouted down — not be me, but by the rest of the Facebook community who posted links to the videos I had made earlier in the day.
One lesson I learned: Don’t mess with a lineman’s wife when her husband is out in the field for the fifth-consecutive 18-hour day.
In the end, someone said, “Hey! If I’m the last person whose power is brought back, I want a commemorative T-shirt!” Someone followed that with, “We should all get T-shirts.” To which I said, “What if we sold them and gave the money to charity?” In the end, I spun a deal with one of our vendors where they would donate all the money above the cost of the shirt (which they deeply discounted) to our favorite charity, the Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.
We raised more than $2,500 to celebrate a five-day power outage. People all over the area started appearing in the “I Survived Snowstorm Rocky” T-shirt I designed. And our cooperative’s VP of Finance, a great guy who happened to be not that fond of marketing because he saw it as solely a cost center, came into my office when all was said and done and told me: “John, I don’t know how you did it, but you turned an outage into a good thing. Congratulations.” And he shook my hand.
Very little has meant more to me in my entire communications career than that moment.
In the wake of this, speaking opportunities started to pop up all over the place, first locally, then statewide, then nationally. How did we do what we did? Could we share our crisis communications plan? (Sure! Let me write it down first.) This all culminated in a huge statewide conference in which I was asked to speak to cooperative leaders and board members.
“You’ll go on just after the governor,” I was told when I arrived.
“Wait. What? Excuse me?”
“You’ll go on as soon as the governor is done talking.”
So I stood just out of sight and watched the governor talk. He finished his speech and walked past me as he headed for his car with his staff. And then I took the stage, looked out over the crowd and smiled. “Man, this is weird,” I said. “I never thought I’d have a governor as my warmup act.”
Why Do We Suffer?
As all of this was happening, I was still talking about Jacob. I had written another book that borrowed heavily from “Jacob’s Story” but was what I called a fictional follow-up to his life.
“The Envelope,” was born from the many conversations I had with people about Jacob after writing my first book. I’d met so many people who had similar experiences with loss to mine who were struggling with the obvious question of “Why?” And the reality was, they weren’t getting good answers.
The answers they were getting seemed hollow, heavy on Christian platitudes and light on helping address the reality of what they were facing. It’s all well and good to say “God never gives you more than you can handle” when you break a foot, but when you lose your child? Add to that list of “Things Not To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving, which includes but is certainly not limited to:
- God’s got a plan for this
- God just needed a little angel
- God’s in charge
- At least you’re young; you’ll have other children
- Just look forward… God’s preparing you for something big
I heard each one of those things many times during our walk, and, evidently, so did a lot of other people during theirs. It left all of us wanting to punch the pious Christian in the face. Hard.
So I wrote about what I felt the “Why?” really was, what I was seeing that the “Why?” really was. It was fairly straight-forward, and so is the premise of “The Envelope.” It can be boiled down to: “The reason we suffer is because other people will suffer, and, if we suffer something, we are better able to help those who follow us.”
Now, to be fair: That still sucks. Big time. And I’m not saying it’s any ordained plan of God, because, in reality, I don’t get God and there is absolutely no good explanation for why a father has to walk into a church to see his infant son’s tiny casket at the front of the room. But I do know the truth that my son’s casket wasn’t the last to be at the front of a church and that I was better able to help those parents who followed me on that long walk down the aisle to kneel in front of it in tears because of what I went through.
So I wrote the book and accepted some speaking events.
And then I was done.
I had begun to wrestle hard with my own faith and have serious questions about God’s reality and role in the huge swamp of crap I was living. I have reached a pretty good place now, though where I landed has sent shockwaves throughout my existence. Change is hard.
Enter Michael Pitman. Or Mike Pitman. Or M.D. Pitman, as he’s known professionally. Or Pit, as I like to call him. I met Mike back in my newspaper days. In fact, it was only a few years after Jacob died that I became Pit’s supervisor as editor of a group of weeklies in Southwest Ohio. Pit was a hard-working reporter who was seriously dedicated to his craft and was refreshingly open to editing and feedback. I had helped craft a great team of energetic, young reporters and photographers, and we had been blessed with the backing of corporate resources for what would ultimately be an unsuccessful attempt to find a way to generate enough revenue at the hyper-local level to overcome the financial bleeding from the mothership, the Dayton Daily News.
We had fun. I started this thing to celebrate when our crew finished with a story and it was ready for me to edit. Rather than having them send me an email or instant message, we rallied behind the cry of “Story Filed!” It was awesome to be in the midst of a tense, deadline-focused newsroom where the only sound was the click-click-click of keyboards until someone belted out our victory cry, which was followed by all the others saying, “Whoop whoop!”
Corny? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.
I would move on to another newspaper position several years later, but Pit and I kept in touch and I followed his career. He is one of two folks I know who are still in the industry, a credit to his dedication and abilities.
Earlier this year, I saw on Pit’s Facebook that he was branching out into other mediums. This is a very Pit-like thing to do, I thought, because Pit is always trying new things. I told him I was impressed with what he was doing and proud to see him working on something different.
Making a splash in the podcast world is hard, precisely because it is so easy to make a podcast (though there’s a huge difference between a podcast and a good podcast). One recent study found that there are more the 2 million podcasts fanning out into 48 million episodes. A huge huge huge majority of them will never make a dime. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be made. I write things like this not to make money but to scratch a creative itch. If no one ever reads this, I’m still OK. The thing is, Pit is trying.
His premise is simple. “Let me ask you something…” It’s the name of his podcast and it’s what he does. He asks his guests something about the thing in their life that changed them. So he asked me if I would come on his show and talk about Jacob. Truthfully, I was touched beyond belief. I had no idea Jacob ever registered on Pit’s radar, let alone that he still registered on Pit’s radar more than 20 years later.
After a false start where I had to delay our interview a week because the child for whom I am host da-da was unexpectedly hospitalized with an infection, we sat down and talked via Zoom. It turned into the recording at the top of this blog and the video here:
I had such a great time talking with Pit — before, during and after our interview. It reminded me of what a quality person he is. It felt really, really weird to be talking about Jacob again after so many years. I was also a bit hampered toward the end when Longhaul COVID brain fog began to creep in. Despite that, Pit did a great job as an interview. That is absolutely not a surprise.
The hole Jacob left in my heart has never healed. I don’t think it’s supposed to. It took me a long time to figure that out. That hole will be an exposed wound for as long as I live. And that’s one of the points I tried to get across in my talk with Pit, that there are some things that change your life forever, things that you don’t “come back” from. Pit gets that. It’s pretty much the premise of his podcast.
So if you’ve got the time, give it a listen. And follow and share the “Let Me Ask You Something” podcast with your friends and family. My interview was Episode 4. The previous three were all great talks, and I can’t wait to see what’s to come.
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