Terrible Thanks for Asking // A Podcast by Nora Mclnerny
How are you? I bet you’ve been asked this question at least once before your morning coffee. The formality of “how are you” is so ingrained in the way we greet one another it’s become less of question and more of a choreographed back in forth between two humans. The answer one expects, “fine, how are you?” is just as rehearsed and rarely heard. In fact, I’ve shared this article on avoiding empty formalities altogether with many friends and colleagues. With “how are you” and “I hope you are well,” there’s no real exchange of information, and most often, we’re not really answering the question at all.
So what happens when we start answering “how are you” honestly? That’s the concept behind the new American Public Media podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” by author and notable widow (her words) Nora McInerny Purmort. The podcast is about the human condition, meeting sadness with heavy dose of humor, and all of the awkward, painful moments that come with coexisting on this planet.
We’re so thrilled to have Nora on W&D today to talk a little bit about her incredible story, staying “sane” in the digital world, and what she’s learned from adopting unbridled honesty.
Tell us a little bit about how Terrible, Thanks For Asking came to be.
Oh geeze. Buckle up, folks. In 2014, my husband and my dad died right after I had a miscarriage. All of this happened within the span of 7 weeks. My husband Aaron had been sick with brain cancer for three years, my dad had been diagnosed with cancer a few months before he died. Like a lot of people — especially strong, accomplished women — being capable is my default mode. So, I was capable. I raised my child, I wrote a book, I kept going even though I was filled with hot, molten grief. And when people asked how I was, I said fine. Not because I was a liar, but because, how do you say “well, I am dying inside and I might be having a nervous breakdown?” I realized very quickly that
- This was not helpful. Sure, it was polite for the person at Target. But it was not helpful to people who love me. It prevented them from seeing me, it prevented them from being there for me. And It helped keep me lonely and suffering.
- This is not special! I am not the first person to experience a whole bunch of terrible all at once. It always feels like the kind of thing that happens to Someone Else. Until you are Someone Else. My inboxes were all filled with people who wanted to tell me — a stranger on the internet — about their Terrible Thing. Maybe because they didn’t want to make the people around them uncomfortable. Maybe because the people around them had stopped asking. Not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t want to say or do the wrong thing. Or because every time they asked, they heard “fine,” and believe it.
When something bad happens to you, you can feel yourself turning into a sad story, something other people talk about and define. “Oh, she’s the girl who…” This podcast is a way for me to help other people feel heard and seen, to help them tell their own story. Which may be sad, but doesn’t make them a sad story.
The idea came from my inbox, and now it’s here.
What is the most surprising answer you’ve received from asking “How are you?”
My favorite answer of all time came from my father. The day he died, he was in the ICU, and his very sweet nurse came in to check on him and asked how he was doing. It was really hard for him to breathe, but he said, “I’m kinda dying here.” She was initially horrified, until my entire family started laughing hysterically. That was perfectly my dad: if you asked him a question, he was going to give you a real answer. And isn’t that how it should be?
What surprises me most is how unprepared I am when someone asks me that question. The other day someone asked me how I was and I said, “I’m going to the bathroom. To pee. I’m going to pee in the bathroom.” It was like I was an alien trying to do a good impression of human interaction.
Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around a lot but when it’s real, it’s incredibly powerful. How do you define authenticity and what does it mean to you?
To me, authenticity is being who you say you are. Not who someone else says you are, or expects you to be, but who you really are. I am very aware that I contain multitudes. I have stacks of poetry books and I love Real Housewives. I truly work to be an empathetic and kind person, I meditate, but I can also find myself in a straight up Twitter fight at 11pm wondering, “what am I doing with my life?!” My authentic self is a chaotic tornado that is running 5 minutes — okay, 15 minutes — FINE, THIRTY MINUTES LATE — shopping at the co-op but stopping at McDonald’s for fries and a coke, and reminding my toddler that sh*t is a “home word, not a preschool word.”
So often we find ourselves at a loss for words when a friend or loved one is struggling. What’s the best way we can support one another during trying times?
We have this notion that we must immediately be proficient at things we have never done. Things like sickness and death and accidents and lost jobs and infertility…all of these things that are new territory to navigate every time we face them. You don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to be proficient. You just need to try, and to put your own feelings aside for the person you care about. They aren’t an expert, either, they just don’t have a choice about dealing with something. They can’t check out and in at their own will. This is their actual life. It’s fine to say, “I love you and I don’t know what to say or do right now, but I really care about you.” It’s fine to reach out with an offer of help and not hear back, or be rejected. It may feel personal, but it isn’t. Try again later. Try again after that. Try a few months after the fact, when things are quieter and the world has moved on. And for Pete’s sake, don’t say, “let me know what I can do.” Even if your sweet little heart means it with all of your being, you’re giving a person in crisis a to-do, which is finding a job for you. Pick something — a card, a meal left on the doorstep, a gift card in the mail, a raked and mowed yard — and do it.
One of my biggest struggles is finding the balance between having healthy boundaries and embracing digital media as a new way to connect with people and make positive change in the world. How do you stay sane in the digital world?
LOLOL KATE! I am not sane. I would say that my #1 sexual fantasy is deleting all my social media and moving to a forest where someone delivers my groceries and I get really good at like, weaving or something, and my kids just play with sticks and wear neutral tones and we live like Little House on the Prairie but also have Netflix for emergencies. Periodically, I delete all apps from my phone. Daily, I use an app called SimpleBlocker to keep me from mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and Facebook when I should be writing. I meditate using the HeadSpace app. And at least once a week I get in an unwinnable comment battle with a complete stranger because I am a mess and a work in progress and also because being a woman on the internet is the absolute pits.
Your candor, humor and honesty is so refreshing and we LOVE following you on social media! Who are your favorite follows on Twitter?
- @commonsquirrel — I don’t know why, but I laugh maniacally every time this is in my timeline
- @geekylonglegs — Sarah is smart and hilarious and it’s very hard for me not to like or RT all her tweets.
- @myhairisblue — ditto for Sam.
- @dana_schwartzzz — and Dana.
- @tweetsbycollin — and Collin.
What’s the one thing you hope people take away from Terrible, Thanks for Asking?
We are all awkward little bags of skin filled with feelings. We don’t need to be perfect for one another, we need to get better for one another. We need to be comfortable with our own discomfort, and the discomfort of others. Ultimately, I just want people feel less alone and more capable when a Terrible Thing happens to them or around them.
Image courtesy of: nylonsaddle photography