The S-word that changed my life (and the 'S-Town' podcast) for the better.

First thing: The "S" in "S-Town" stands for shit, but that's not the S-word that came to mind in my listen of the new podcast.

The seven-chapter story — which has been downloaded more than 10 million times so far — follows "This American Life" reporter Brian Reed as he learns about the goings-on of Woodstock, Alabama, the shit-town in question, through one of its longtime residents: antique clock restorer, climate change fanatic, and dog rescuer John B. McLemore. From a potential murder and cover-up to forgery and buried treasure, this is not true crime as you know it.

"S-Town" host Brian Reed. Photo by Andrea Morales. All photos used with permission.


It's a deep-dive look into the world of McLemore. But more significantly, it's a beautifully produced case for sonder.

Sonder, a word invented by John Koenig for "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows," is the idea that every single person you meet or see has a life as rich and complex as your own.

Sonder is essentially empathy+. While you are the star of your own life story, the people you interact with, even for a brief moment, are also the stars of their life stories. Unless they do something heroic, exceptional, or criminal, we don't always get to witness or hear everyone's experiences. But we know they're there.

"S-Town" lets you in on the secret. You're granted a front-row seat to McLemore's life, his complex story. It's sonder in action.

Reed with McLemore. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Listening to it feels intimate and self-indulgent, even borderline voyeuristic. Reed's reporting reveals a protagonist who is quirky and mysterious, who is highly intelligent and a self-identified semi-homosexual, who is well-known in his community, even if he's seen as an odd bird.

We get to know this man, for better or worse. It's a portrait of his lived experience few would ever see without this podcast. But as fascinating and compelling as McLemore is, he's just as remarkably ordinary as the rest of us. Sonder.

The beauty of "S-Town" was not McLemore himself, but that McLemore could have been anyone.

The unforgettable McLemore — and the riveting characters of "S-Town" — can be found in any town, with any family. Whether you believe it or not, we all have podcast-worthy lives.

Reed in the recording studio. Photo by Sandy Honig.

When we practice and recognize sonder, these previously unimaginable stories seem to reveal themselves.  

These characters walk among us. These stories already exist. You can explore new communities and dive deep into unique lived experiences just by listening — to podcasts, but mostly to each other.

You can practice and recognize sonder in your own life. Ask "How are you?" and mean it. Meet your neighbors. Introduce yourself to the people you see every day but never stop to talk to. Take your headphones off and listen to the sounds of your city, the people and places that make your neighborhood home. Recognize each of us has a part to play, large or small, in everyone's story. Who will you be for someone else? Who will tell your story? What will they have to say?

Because Reed might not be thinking about a second season of "S-Town," but you don't have to wait to discover the next great story.

More
Courtesy of Houseplant.

In America, one dumb mistake can hang over your head forever.

Nearly 30% of the American adult population — about 70 million people — have at least one criminal conviction that can prevent them from being treated equally when it comes to everything from job and housing opportunities to child custody.

Twenty million of these Americans have felony convictions that can destroy their chances of making a comfortable living and prevents them from voting out the lawmakers who imprisoned them.

Many of these convictions are drug-related and stem from the War on Drugs that began in the U.S. '80s. This war has unfairly targeted the minority community, especially African-Americans.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

Climate change is happening because the earth is warming at an accelerated rate, a significant portion of that acceleration is due to human activity, and not taking measures to mitigate it will have disastrous consequences for life as we know it.

In other words: Earth is heating up, it's kinda our fault, and if we don't fix it, we're screwed.

This is the consensus of the vast majority of the world's scientists who study such things for a living. Case closed. End of story.

How do we know this to be true? Because pretty much every reputable scientific organization on the planet has examined and endorsed these conclusions. Thousands of climate studies have been done, and multiple peer-reviewed studies have been done on those studies, showing that somewhere between 84 and 97 percent of active climate science experts support these conclusions. In fact, the majority of those studies put the consensus well above 90%.

Keep Reading Show less
Nature
via James Anderson

Two years ago, a tweet featuring the invoice for a fixed boiler went viral because the customer, a 91-year-old woman with leukemia, received the services for free.

"No charge for this lady under any circumstances," the invoice read. "We will be available 24 hours to help her and keep her as comfortable as possible."

The repair was done by James Anderson, 52, a father-of-five from Burnley, England. "James is an absolute star, it was overwhelming to see that it cost nothing," the woman's daughter told CNN.

Keep Reading Show less
Heroes

I live in a family with various food intolerances. Thankfully, none of them are super serious, but we are familiar with the challenges of finding alternatives to certain foods, constantly checking labels, and asking restaurants about their ingredients.

In our family, if someone accidentally eats something they shouldn't, it's mainly a bit of inconvenient discomfort. For those with truly life-threatening food allergies, the stakes are much higher.

I can't imagine the ongoing stress of deadly allergy, especially for parents trying to keep their little ones safe.

Keep Reading Show less
popular