: ... And she had this pool toy inflatable dolphin that she had cut open and was wearing. ERIC JOHNSON
: Unfortunately, Helen Zaltzman is not talking about red carpet fashion there, but there is still time to fix that! Margot Robbie, if you're listening, consider an inflatable dolphin for the Oscars. Anyway, from the Allusionist, it's Helen Zaltzman, today on Follow Friday!
[ad + theme] ERIC
: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, a show about the best people on the internet and why you should follow them. If you're new to the show, welcome! Every week, I talk to the internet creators I admire most about who they
follow online. These include podcasters, writers, comedians, musicians, and more. They have amazing taste and will guide us to the people they find fascinating, who we should be following, too.
Today on the show is Helen Zaltzman, the host of The Allusionist
, which is an outstanding, independent podcast about language. Over the past six years, Helen has covered everything from cryptic crosswords to translations to public apologies.
She also co-hosts two other podcasts: The comedy show Answer Me This!
and a podcast about Veronica Mars — a TV show I love — called Veronica Mars Investigations
. Here is a clip from a recent episode of the Allusionist, where Helen interviewed Christa Couture, a disabled musician and writer. At this point in the episode, Christa has just explained why she doesn't like the euphemisms "differently abled" or "handicapable." CHRISTA COUTURE
: "... So those are words I want people to not use. HELEN
: Interested to learn though, that handicap was a betting term for the first 250 years of its life. CHRISTA
: I mean, I do, it gets used in golf, doesn't it? HELEN
: Yeah. And horse racing and things. So, yeah. It was only from like the 1890s that it was a physical disability word. CHRISTA
: Hmm. And now one that is frowned upon. HELEN
: Yeah. CHRISTA
: It's so interesting, isn't it? How it shifts. HELEN
: I think actually the shifting-ness is one of the things that makes people struggle with it because they're like, 'I don't know what to say now, because 10 years ago I was told to say this other thing that I'm now not allowed to say. So I'm terrified to say this thing. And now I've made this conversation very awkward and the wrong word has escaped my mouth because I'm so stressed.' CHRISTA
: Right. Right. And I've, I've been that stressed out person! [laughs]" ERIC
: You can find Helen on Twitter @HelenZaltzman
. And you can follow along with us today: Every person she recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at FollowFridayPodcast.com Helen, welcome to Follow Friday! HELEN
: Thank you so much for having me! Also, thank you very much for spelling my name. I appreciate it. You know, a lot of people see the little cluster of consonants in the middle and they just immediately panic. ERIC
: [laughs] So when I was in high school, I did a summer program at Northwestern that was basically newspaper camp for wannabe journalists, and it was run by a man named Roger Boye, B-O-Y-E. And he said that when he was a kid, the local paper wrote up something he did, and he was so excited to see his name in the paper. And then he opened it and they spelled his name Bore, B-O-R-E. HELEN
: [gasps] ERIC
: [laughs] It scarred him for life. So he passed that onto us. HELEN
: Oh, I've got a similarly bad one. It was my husband's, whose surname is Austwick. He was an academic and they spelled his name on an academic paper "Auschwitz." ERIC
: Oh, no! HELEN
: Oh, yes. Not great. ERIC
: Yeah. Autocorrect, don't do that. HELEN
: Well, I think that was human correct. I don't know whether they disliked him or something. ERIC
: That's ... even worse. HELEN
: Mm. Yes. Humans. Aah! ERIC
: Well, before we get into your follows, I do have a language question for you. Spinning off of the clip we just heard from Christa Couture, what are the words or phrases that people commonly use today that you think we're going to regret? So not necessarily ableist terms, specifically, although my girlfriend and I were talking about this. We think "lame" and "crazy" are probably near the top of the list.
Are there any others that come to mind? HELEN
: Yeah, there's probably a lot to do with mental health that are next. I think probably "dumb," people need to reevaluate. Also, we have so many options for synonyms. What was I thinking of though just earlier that really unnecessarily aggravates me? There are so many. ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: And I thought, "File this away, just in case Eric asks" what you want erased from the language and this is your big chance. ERIC
: I know. This is the deciding moment. This is the point. Everyone listening to this will agree from here on out. We're not going to use these words anymore. [laughs] HELEN
: I read about this before, when I was on Ologies. She asked and I went on a rant about the word "community" being used in this really kind of condescending, reductive way. I'm not sure people even realize it anymore because I think people will just use it to mean a demographic, but it always, to me, sounds like it's a hundred people in a church hall or something, and they all have the same opinion.
And I think there's a certain danger to that of making things quaint. I think just whenever you're noticing yourself use a word like that, just think, do I even need it? I think community, it can often just be replaced ... like, when they'll say "the science community..." ERIC
: I see. And it's like ... HELEN
: Or "the female community" I saw, which is like ... ERIC
: Oh, that's the worst. [laughs] HELEN
: You know, that's an awful lot of people. That's not really a community. That's half the world. So, uh, stop it! What are you trying to say? ERIC
: Wait, you mean you don't have weekly meetings? You don't have weekly summits of all the females in the world? HELEN
: Well, I may not be invited. ERIC
: Ah. Well. HELEN
: And I'd imagine they would be perhaps contentious if we did have them. ERIC
: [laughs] All right. Well, while Helen looks for her invite to the next female community meeting, let's find out who she follows online. So Helen, before the show, I gave you a list of categories. And I asked you to tell me four people you follow, who fit in those categories. Your first pick is in the category "someone super talented who's still under the radar." And you picked Jo Neary, who is on Instagram at @wifeonearth
. So talk about Jo, what she does, and why you love her work. HELEN
: Well, I first met Jo ... God, about 16 years ago now. She's a lot of things. She does character comedy. And so that's how I met her because I know a lot of stand-ups 'cause my brother's in standup. And so I would see her around a lot. And then, um, she started being a regular at this comedy club that I was helping my friend run in my neighborhood.
And it was kind of a weird one where people could come and do experimental stuff, which she's really good at. And then afterwards she would come and sleep on my couch because it was quicker than going home. She lived outside of London. And so that's how we got to know each other, and doing some performance stuff together. And she can just do so many different things.
Like, she'll have a character based on Celia Johnson's character in Brief Encounter. So, this woman who like always falling in love, but it's being snatched away from her. She does this uncanny Bjork impression, and she loves Bjork as well. So it's not a kind of "Oh, isn't Bjork stupid?" She really loves Bjork.
I saw her do a show where she was playing a dolphin, and she had this pool toy inflatable dolphin that she had cut open and was wearing. But she also does these dances. She really loves dancing. So she'll often do stuff that is silent, but just with incredible movement. I don't know if you know the song Moonshadow by Cat Stevens? ERIC
: I've heard of it. I couldn't hum it for you, no. HELEN
: I can hum it, because I've seen her do this dance to it, where it's just a very literal interpretation of what's happening. It goes like, "And if I ever lose my eyes" and she's got these table tennis balls that she throws across the stage, and then she does the whole of the rest of the show with no eyes. And then the song goes, "And if I ever lose my legs," and then she's got to dance without the use of her legs. And then it's like, "If I ever lose my mouth" and she spits Tic Tacs all over the stage, as if they're teeth. ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: So the whole time, the whole several minutes of dance, she's had this mouthful of Tic Tacs. ERIC
: Oh, my gosh. She's just, at the end of it, just a shambles? HELEN
: Except ... it's not, it's all like kind of a shambles and kind of beautifully intentional. ERIC
: Yeah. HELEN
: And so she's very imaginative. She used to do this song called "I'm the worst Eminem tribute act in the world" where she would just come and sort of sing this show tune. ERIC
: [laughs] In the style of Eminem? Or... HELEN
: No, no. In the style of a show tune. Yeah. That's why she's the worst Eminem tribute act because ... So, there's just a real kind of joy to her work. And then she has been keeping this sort of comic book diary of her life for decades. ERIC
: Does that on Instagram, yeah. HELEN
: Yeah. And I just find that really fun and sort of interesting in style how she expresses her life visually or through these means and always kind of unexpected and how she can make very mundane things charming.
I think she has kind of low self esteem about how brilliant she is, which I find frustrating. She's like, "Well, if things are based on merit, then, you know, if I deserved it, I would be doing better." And I was like, "No, they're not! You're in showbiz! It's not based on merit at all. It's based on hustle." ERIC
: This is something I was talking about when Alie Ward was on Follow Friday was ... we were talking about Chris Fleming, one of her picks, and how someone's stage presence can be completely at odds with who they are in private life. HELEN
: Oh gosh, yeah. ERIC
: We were speculating that Chris, who's this wild, absurdist, similarly creative, inventive comedian. And we were speculating, you know, based on other folks we've met, we wondered if he's just really quiet and really reserved and just the complete opposite in real life.
I do love what you're saying, though, about how she's so inventive that she's trying multiple creative things. She's not just someone who's only doing the comic of her life. She's not only doing the stand-up musical stuff. Is there anything in particular ... would you say the comic is the thing you most associate with her when you are following her online? What is the thing that you see most often, or that you follow most often of her work? HELEN
: Regarding what you were just saying about whether people are different on or off stage ... I think that's odd for her, given that she knows those people both on and off stage. So it's not even about their onstage confidence. It's about the fact that she is attributing things to her own abilities rather than how industries work.
So I feel like she deserves more for the talents that she has, but I don't go to comedy really anymore, even before COVID, I'd sort of fallen off doing that. So for the first several years, I would associate her with these like interpretive dances. But yeah, the drawings are always there to be looked at, even if Jo is not.
But she's just one of these people that lives a very creative life. It's just so much part of who she is. You go to her house and her desk looks like someone who's just really interested in the objects around her and sort of creatively fed by them. Also she once came to visit with her husband Pad, and we realized that Pad had the same shoes that my husband has, except two sizes smaller. So while my husband was in the loo, we switched one of his shoes for one of Pad's shoes, and then watched him struggling to put it on. ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: I usually hate pranks, but it was an incredible day. ERIC
: That was Jo Neary, who is on Instagram at @wifeonearth
. And her website is JoNeary.com
Let's move on to Helen's next follow. Helen, I asked you for someone who's an expert in a very specific niche that you love. And you said Justin Myers, AKA The Guyliner, who is on Twitter at @TheGuyliner
, and is also at TheGuyliner.com
So Justin is best known for reviewing The Guardian Blind Date, which was a new concept to me. I was not familiar with this, but I guess it's a very long-running column. So maybe for ignorant Americans like me, let's first explain what Blind Date is and then what Justin does with it that's so brilliant. HELEN
: [laughs] Well, Guardian's Blind Date has been running for, I think, 12 years. And because the Guardian has a dating service that has been running for 20-odd years ... a friend used it before the dating apps came in; it seemed like the people she met on that had a particular brand of being kind of arsey. ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: But the Blind Dates are pretty charming, so they just match-make two people to go on a dinner date. At the moment, they're all over Zoom because we've been under lockdown. And then they have to answer a series of questions, which are always the same. And it's rare that the people will hit it off and want to see each other again. I'd say, if you're lucky, one in five? And then some of them, it's really upsetting, if one of them is into the other one and that asymmetry is brutal, but it's just that kind of thing where just nosing into people's lives...
It's a single page in a magazine on Saturdays. The magazine is just about to be discontinued. So, who knows if they will keep the Blind Date in some form. What Justin Myers does is recap the column. I do enjoy commentary on other things that I enjoy, like TV recaps, written ones. And this, it's been interesting watching how it's developed over the five or six years he's been doing it because ... ERIC
: He's been doing it that long? Wow. HELEN
: Yeah. And I think it's probably a bit of a burden for him at this point to have to wake up on Saturday and think, "Oh God, people are expecting me to..." ERIC
: "Gotta read about another stupid date that's not going to go anywhere!" HELEN
: Yeah, exactly. And it's so frustrating. The way that it's developed is that it was initially just kind of like when you're watching TV with a friend and shouting at the TV, it was a bit like that. But now it's just like, he'll get a lot of things in about what things were like for him, dating as a gay man, and growing up in quite a homophobic society at the time. And gay rights. He'll talk a lot about gender stuff, because often the women will say things like, "Oh, I hope I didn't talk too much!" And he's like, "Women always think that, and we never get men who think they're too chatty."
So he'll manage to make it into a commentary and so much more whilst also being really, really funny about two strangers meeting for a date and whether they hit it off or not. ERIC
: It's sort reminding me a bit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, if you ever watched that show. HELEN
: I haven't. ERIC
: They're watching a bad movie and they're jumping in with jokes. But obviously, like you're saying, he's also bringing in his personal experience as well, which makes it even funnier, in some way. Kind of more specific. HELEN
: Yeah. Or sometimes, it's a very philosophical thing because a lot of it is just so much about longing and the yearning for a human connection and how distant that prospect can seem. ERIC
: Yeah, I'm sure if you're one of the people who's participating in the Guardian Blind Date — you probably know, if you've been reading it for a long time, there's not a super high chance of success. But at the same time, it's a universal thing. Everyone would like to be with somebody, so... HELEN
: Oh, yeah. And you are getting match-made by a human being, in that case, and not just algorithms or geography. So maybe there is a higher chance from Guardian Blind Date. ERIC
: Could be. I also think there's something interesting where ... I wonder if this is something you were consciously thinking about, since you're a linguistics expert. HELEN
: [laughs] Expert. I get experts on my show! That's different. ERIC
: Then you're the world's most famous enthusiast, at least. HELEN
: Cheers. ERIC
: Justin is picking apart words that people use to describe someone, when they're being interviewed for the column. His column that he does is called Impeccable Table Manners. And in a recent column, he says that a woman describes her date as "down to earth." And he writes, "I always wonder what 'down to earth' actually means. I take it to mean friendly and not intimidating here, but it can also mean common, can't it? I have no concept of what common is, really, but I always interpreted it as someone who wipes their hands in the back of their jeans after they'd just eaten a choux bun." [laughs] HELEN
: [laughs] That's another thing as well. 'Cause class is such a big thing, still, in Britain. And I think there was a period of the 20th century where Brits tried to pretend it wasn't, and "we dealt with all of that now," and we really haven't. The parameters may have shifted some, so that's another thing that he often draws attention to in his analysis of the language.
But I think also sometimes it's funny to ... they have to describe the other person in three words, and so often the words are just a little bland. And it's funny to extract from that. The "Impeccable Table Manners" thing is based on one of the other questions, where they have to say whether the other person had good table manners, which I don't know ... do you care about that? Do you notice it? I don't know what I'm looking for. ERIC
: What I noticed more than anything is how the person talks to people who were not me. The adage is like, "if the person is nice to you, but rude to the wait staff, then run away as fast as you can." HELEN
: Ooh, yep. Absolutely. ERIC
: That's the thing. So any sort of interactions with any person who is not me, whether it's the waiter or a pamphleteer on the street, or I don't know what, that's kind of like the biggest thing I'm paying attention to more than whether or not they use the salad fork, or the oyster spoon, or whatever. HELEN
: Yes, it seems non-priority now, to have in-depth cutlery knowledge. So the question feels a little bit redundant, but I wonder whether they kept it because The Guardian knows that he's doing this. He has since been in The Guardian talking about doing this! ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: And sometimes the daters mention that they talked about him on the date, but there was a long streak where people would answer the question about table manners with the word "impeccable." Which is an odd word to come up with. It's a cliché. ERIC
: So when you read columns like Blind Date or other things like that, are you doing the same thing Justin's doing? Are you reading between the lines, kind of picking apart what words people are using? Or are you just enjoying them the way are intended, as entertainment? HELEN
: Yeah, I'm just enjoying them for fun because when I'm not forced by work to do this kind of interpretation, I like to switch that part of my brain off. I'm really reading it because it's funny and interesting to gawk at someone else on a date, you don't get to do that that much. ERIC
: Yeah! HELEN
: And another thing is that this column comes out on Saturdays and The Guyliner, if he does it — because he doesn't do it every week — comes out on Saturdays. And because I'm self-employed, I don't have that much to distinguish one day from another, or to distinguish the weekend from a weekday. But I know that those things happen on a Saturday.
I know that the Grub Street Diet, which I also enjoy in a kind of peering into other people's lives way, happens on a Friday. So that feels like, kind of the start of the weekend. And I don't know, it sounds sad when I say that — how unstructured my life is, except for by a handful of things. ERIC
: Well, once we all get out of lockdown here, once everyone's vaccinated and everything opens up again, maybe there'll be some more sense of structure in our days. I don't know. HELEN
: No. I mean, I've been freelance, self-employed, for 16 years, so no, there really isn't. ERIC
: [laughs] You've been there, you know. HELEN
: Yeah. I mean, lockdown was not a change in my work style, out of all people, which again, seems like an upsetting thing to say to you. ERIC
: Well, you can pick up a new thing when we're back to normal! You can join some club that only meets at a certain time on Thursdays or something like that. HELEN
: Mm. It just seems like the kind of thing that I wouldn't do for more than one week, as well, because I'm so bad at... Maybe here's the thing: I'm bad at imposing structure myself. So I just need the external structures of easily accessible things to read that come out on a particular day. ERIC
: Okay, well here's hoping that whatever happens to the Guardian Magazine that Blind Date continues to happen, just for Helen's sake. HELEN
: Thank you. Do it for me. ERIC
: That was The Guyliner, who is on Twitter at @TheGuyliner
, or at TheGuyliner.com
. We're going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Helen Zaltzman from The Allusionist.
: Welcome back to Follow Friday. Helen Zaltzman, I asked you to tell me someone who has stopped posting, but needs to come back. You said the podcast Nancy
, which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts.
This was a show made by WNYC about the queer experience; it ran from 2017 to 2020. So talk about what it meant to you and why you want it to come back. HELEN
: Well, I don't want to force them, because I think Kathy and Tobin, the hosts, are happy where they are now. Tobin's working at This American Life, Kathy's working at the New York Times. And, you know, it's better to go while people still want more of your podcast. I've been doing a podcast for 14 and a half years, and that is the opposite thing. ERIC
: [laughs] HELEN
: I think for me, as a podcaster, I don't often get to listen to podcasts for pleasure because my ears are busy with work. And then when I'm not listening to stuff that I'm making, they just really need a break. I used to listen to more stuff for pleasure when I was living in London. And whenever you want to go somewhere else in London, it's likely to take an hour, wherever it is, and an hour home. And often, it might be on a train that's very packed full of people. So you can't even hold a book, but you can listen to a podcast. And that would really make the experience a lot more tolerable. And same, when I was walking around, I would listen to podcasts, but because of lockdown, I haven't been listening as much either, 'cause I haven't been going anywhere. And on walks, my husband is usually with me and therefore I have to talk to him, I suppose.
So what I got from Nancy that I don't often get from podcasts is what people often go to podcasts for, which is that parasocial relationship thing, where you just want to spend time with the hosts and you love spending time with their friendship.
So I think that's what I loved predominantly about it, but it's also a really meaningful show in ways that shouldn't be radical in this day and age, but they still are. You've got this thing, which is just about queer life and they have a wonderful Facebook group, still, which has quieted down because the show is not going anymore, but it's still just a safe space, where I've never seen anyone be a jerk in it. ERIC
: Wow. HELEN
: And people can ask questions or post links and it doesn't have people in there antagonizing them. And I think also, it's the kind of thing that would have been really useful, it would have been good to have around earlier. Like I'm 40 and I was just thinking, there was nothing around in my teenage years, except for a lot of gay panic stuff, because it was the 90s. There was still the fear from the AIDS crisis. There was nothing about gender. I don't think I heard that much discourse really about gender or knew that I could even go in search for that until I was in my 30s. And I just wish I had had shows like this around then. ERIC
: Yeah. And you had Kathy and Tobin — Kathy Tu and Tobin Low — on the Allusionist to talk about the word "queer," right? HELEN
: Yes, in 2018. And that's a word that has changed so much, it's so complicated. Like, whenever I do a show that is about anything to do with queer language, it's so complicated. The recent history alone is incredibly complex and not monolithic. So it will vary according to place and who you ask.
And a lot of it, as well, just had to be covert because when gayness was illegal, you couldn't necessarily publish things about it, or they wouldn't necessarily be interpreted as you saying those things. So, there's just so much of even fairly recent experience that is unrecorded and this word means so many different things to different people, even now.
It's kind of been reclaimed, but people are still aware that it has this power, a kind of negative power often. I think the benefit of it is just, it's such an open word and can be used to mean so many things. And if you don't want to have to specify things about yourself, or know you don't fit in labels, it's just a useful word to say that, you know, you're not cis-gender and heterosexual. ERIC
: As a way of ... going back to your earlier point about "community," it's not quite the same thing as a community, but it is a way of having some sort of political identity, of attaching yourself to a group that has political power. HELEN
: Yes. And I think making that episode really made me understand a lot of things, more about the political side of being queer. And it allowed me to articulate certain things that I had not necessarily been able to coalesce in my brain in this way, that having language to describe things can really enable you to think thoughts and express thoughts and so forth.
So it was interesting to talk to Kathy and Tobin about that word, because they are early 30s, I think. And I think they had grown up knowing that it was a slur and yet they also find it useful to them now. ERIC
: I want to play a clip from the Allusionist episode where Kathy Tu and Tobin Low appeared, talking about the word "queer." The first voice you'll hear is Kathy's and the last voice is Tobin's. KATHY TU
: "Maybe I don't really honestly crave a singular label like some people do, which it's totally OK if you do, OK if you don't. HELEN
: People who have no real business in your life, so why are they so anxious to categorize you? KATHY
: Well, I think it might be because we host the podcast about queer life. TOBIN LOW
: To be fair, we invite some of it. KATHY
: Yeah yeah yeah yeah. We're queer! And then they're like, "Well, what kind?" They've really zeroed in on certain things, like I've been asked so many times like what did I mean in our very first episode, when I said "I'm not completely gay." Which was my attempt at explaining to my mom this very fuzzy middle ground that I actually live in. HELEN
: Not that you have a heterosexual knee?
: Yes. TOBIN
: I have the most heteronormative feet; they're just straight as can be, my feet. Nothing I can do about it." HELEN
: And I talked to Eric Marcus, who makes the podcast Making Gay History. And for Eric, as someone who came of age thing, I think in the 70s and 80s, the word queer was sort of weaponized against them. ERIC
: It was exclusively pejorative back then, yeah. HELEN
: Exactly. And because they're working on their show and a lot of the staff are younger, they have sort of encouraged Eric to reevaluate the word, which Eric has been doing, but not without emotions and personal costs. And I think probably in a few years, it will be worth revisiting and seeing if it has evolved further. ERIC
: Yeah. With any words like that that, sort of reclaimed slurs or other pejoratives, you know ... Basically every dimension of my identity, I have been historically privileged, so I'm always erring on the side of super cautious, just because I don't know what someone's relationship is with a word.
Even if some people have reclaimed it, I'm always just tiptoeing because I don't want to trigger something for someone who has had a really bad experience with a word that has been thrown at them in a way that I couldn't possibly anticipate or imagine. It's a really tricky subject. HELEN
: It is. And I think people get very concerned about how much language evolves and sometimes how overwhelmingly quickly and how much plurality there is in it as well, because these words mean different things to different people. And I think some people react to that stress, and the fear that they might use the wrong thing, with just kind of doubling down on using stuff badly.
I think the thing is like, even if you have said a word before that you regret saying now, you can change. Any time, you can change your language use. So that's great! ERIC
: It's OK to say "I was wrong." [laughs] HELEN
: Yeah. Just like, you didn't know then and now you know better. It's just a constant education, language, and that does require some attention. But I don't think that's bad at all.
And also, it's just really interesting and valuable to see how people talk about themselves and take cues from that. And I think that's easier and easier to do because people might say stuff online that they don't say to your face, or describe themselves in a way they don't have to describe themselves in person because you know them.
So it's an opportunity, I would say, rather than a source of ... upset. ERIC
: Anxiety. HELEN
: Yeah. I mean, everything's a source of anxiety, really. [laughs] ERIC
: [laughs] Well, that was the WNYC podcast Nancy
, which was hosted by Kathy Tu and Tobin Low. We have time for one more follow today. Helen, I asked you for someone you don't know, but who you want to be your friend. You said Rhik Samadder, who is on Twitter @whatsamadder
First of all, top tier, maybe one of the best Twitter names I've ever heard. HELEN
: [laughs] ERIC
: But Rhik is a columnist at the Guardian. And in your email to me, you singled out something he wrote a few years ago titled, "Kitchen Gadgets Review: The Egg Master, a Horrifying, Unholy Affair
." So could you explain this column and what this horrifying thing, the Egg Master, is? HELEN
: That's another thing that used to structure my week that doesn't exist anymore. What is my Wednesday now? Rhik used to write a weekly column reviewing kitchen gadgets, most of which shouldn't exist, really. They're not good for the world, or necessary. But it's, of course, very fun to watch him trying.
And I think the Egg Master was a fairly early one that went viral because it was this contraption where you put in a couple of eggs and it extrudes ... imagine an omelet that is also a pipe and smells really bad. ERIC
: [laughs] There's a video of this in Rhik's column. It's terrifying. It's just the grossest thing. I think the Guardian probably violated some obscenity laws by publishing this. It's just, it's awful. HELEN
: [laughs] I wonder whether people bought them off the back of it, just out of curiosity. ERIC
: Yeah. That's always the risk, right? If you're highlighting something that's bad, you draw people... "It can't possibly be that awful, could it?" HELEN
: He describes the egg extrusion as a "flaccid spongy log that half jumps from the machine, writhing like an alien parasite in search of a host body. It's horrifying like a scene from the lair of the white worm." ERIC
: [laughs] So he's a good writer, is what we're getting at. Really funny writer. HELEN
: Yeah, he is. And he wrote a memoir a couple of years ago called, "I Never Said I Loved You
," which is
really funny, but it's also absolutely devastating, 'cause he talks about childhood sexual abuse and depression and suicidal ideation. But it's also an incredible book to read. It's really good. ERIC
: Really? OK. I will add that to my list. HELEN
: So observe those content warnings, but it's fantastic. Just watching someone struggle with these things and also ... I read this, I read The Guyliner, and I just really admire the turns of phrase, because I hate writing, even though I have to do quite a lot of it for my job. So I feel like I can turn out a funny turn of phrase spontaneously in speech, but written down, it feels like an impossibility. And when it probably isn't, it just feels that way. ERIC
: Right. Something I wanted to call out is something Rhik tweeted recently: "My mother just asked me if it was necessary to have heard a podcast before she started her own. I said, I didn't think so." Which is just funny on its own, but then you
replied to this and said, "I hadn't. And I didn't until I had been making my own podcast for a year."
So I want to know about this. When you started listening to other podcasts, how did they compare to what you were making and what you expected, what you imagined they would sound like? HELEN
: Well, remember ... I think this is more inexcusable now. I think now, if you're entering this medium, it ought to be because you care about it and you've done some research, but I started podcasting at the beginning of 2007, when there weren't that many podcasts and they were really much more difficult to get. And I didn't really start listening to them for a year because that Christmas, my brother gave me an iPod in return for me having babysat his baby. And that was what allowed me to start listening to podcasts. ERIC
: 'Cause they were literally things you had to download to iTunes and sync to your iPod. Like that was why they were called podcasts. HELEN
: Right. And I started podcasting before the first iPhone was released, for context. So it was a very different internet world. And the podcasts I was drawn to were ones that were nothing like what I was making. So I could not compare, because having spent three days a week at the time, four days a week, making my own, I really just wanted an escape from that. So I can't tell you how they would compare. ERIC
: [laughs] Nowadays, it does feel like there are some people who are starting shows without bothering to listen to anything else, but ... HELEN
: Yeah. And I don't think it's completely inexcusable, especially if people listen to things
, they might be very inspired by radio or audio art or music ... ERIC
: That's true. HELEN
: You know, I had a lot of influence of stand-up upon me at the start because I'd watched so much stand-up in the proceeding years.
So, the inspiration can come from anyplace, starting podcasts. But now when I see people who are like, "Oh, I started a podcast, then someone else started a podcast of the same name." And I just think it's so inexcusable to start a podcast without having checked if anyone else has the name. ERIC
: Right. [laughs] It's like, do a quick search. It will not take that long. HELEN
: No, it takes minutes to find out if someone else has that name, there are still lots of names available, even though there are 2 million podcasts. ERIC
: Exactly. Well, another thing that Rick does that I wanted to call out is — I think this is maybe after the food gadgets series you mentioned — it's another series he was doing up until lockdown started, called Wellness or Hellness. He tries different wellness gadgets and routines. So like this one is a $39 bamboo self-massage tool, which he describes as "a bunch of barbecue skewers attached to a handle."
First of all, do you follow this column, or did you follow this column? HELEN
: Yeah. ERIC
: And also, do you follow the wellness industry? Is this something that's in your wheelhouse, as well? HELEN
: It's something I think about a lot linguistically, the wellness industry ... actually, this is weird. I kind of grew up with a lot of the current wellness industry thinking from my father. So it was couched in very different terms, but my father was very into crank remedies. And it was extraordinary because I mean, maybe they worked because I never knew him to be ill. Like not even to have a cold until he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in his sixties.
So he was incredibly healthy, but I think he was always looking for a cure for something that didn't actually exist. So I think the illness really was his discontent with his life. And it was displacement.
I don't know how he found these people, but he's also very faddy. So nothing really lasted for longer than a couple of months where he ... I mean, he did Tai Chi for days and he was like, "it's not working!" And I was like, "Tai Chi, I thought you have to practice the basics for at least a year?" He used to see this witch doctor that claimed to be able to get rid of your bad genes with a pendulum. ERIC
: Wow. HELEN
: And I was like, I don't think you can get rid of your genes. And he was like, "No, no, he's written a book!" And it's like, anyone can write a book. So it's somewhat a relief to me that now that the wellness industry has really taken hold, my dad is not online. And so, at least he can't be ... He could spend so much more money now on absolute trash than he even did then. 'Cause at least then, you had to kind of find it in the back of a magazine, or send off to something.
But I look for the ways it is termed in language and the ways that ... I'm always very interested in how people are commercializing things on the sly. And by "interested," I don't mean in a kind of "yay, great." Just in a sort of watchful way.
And I think the wellness industry does a lot of that, but I think it is sort of supplying cures for people who don't have that much wrong with their lives, if you're looking at the kind of Gwyneth Paltrow style, where it's catering to rich white women. But I think also often the way that wellness is termed, it can seem like, you know, if you're not well, it's your fault. You can self-determine this, or if you look after yourself well enough, then everything will be great, and you'll look amazing, and you'll never get sick.
So there's that sense as well of undiagnosed privilege, I guess, because then that just runs through everything, doesn't it? But in these gadgets, it is just, again, watching someone wrestle with something seemingly pointless. ERIC
: Exactly. I mean, I think the obsession with wellness as you're alluding to, it can have really bad effects on a person's psyche or their own ego. But Rhik manages to make this like incredibly entertaining. I just went down a rabbit hole of reading some of his Wellness or Hellness columns. So I would definitely recommend that as well. HELEN
: And also, I get quite stressed with just the amount of stuff that is manufactured that really doesn't need to exist. And I suppose at least with this column, it's like, OK, well this is worth it, and this isn't. Not that I'm buying any of the things anyway. ERIC
: Right. But he's trying it, so you don't have to. HELEN
: Yeah. It's very magnanimous of him. ERIC
: Exactly. That was Rhik Samadder, who is on Twitter at @whatsamadder
Helen, thank you so much for sharing your follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure listeners know how to find you online. Where do you want them to follow you? HELEN
: As you spelled earlier, @HelenZaltzman on Twitter
, and my shows are The Allusionist with an A, not an I; Answer Me This!, also with an A, but harder to mistake; and Veronica Mars Investigations, and those can all be found in the pod places. And Allusionist is @AllusionistShow on the social platforms. ERIC
: Wonderful. And you can find me on Twitter at @HeyHeyESJ
and the show on Twitter
at @FollowFridayPod. And the most important thing you can do to support this show is to tell a friend about it. There's probably a friend or family member you've been meaning to call for a while, but you haven't because you don't know what to talk about.
Here's an idea: Why not talk about high-quality podcasts about internet culture? Or, you know, you can just pretend you
discovered the people that Helen just recommended. If you could work in a plug for Follow Friday, though, I would appreciate it.
Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Katherine Chang and Purple Planet Music.
That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. And when you do, say something nice. See you next Friday!