Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.
So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.
The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.
We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.
Our first episode is from Amanda Tewes.
Hello, everyone. This is Amanda Tewes, and I am an interviewer with The Oral History Center. The State of California, including my home in Contra Costa County, is under orders to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, so I am coming to you today from the inside of my closet.
This is a trying time for everyone, but I’ve had the opportunity to stand back and acknowledge my incredible privilege in being able to work from home, in being confident that I can afford my next rent payment, in knowing that I have quality health insurance. I can comfortably practice social distancing because I am not on the frontlines of this pandemic, offering medical care or even trying to feed the hungry and newly-unemployed. In fact, I have friends in these fields, and thanks to them I have a front row seat to how COVID-19 is exacerbating the social problems we ignore every day.
As a historian, living in the time of COVID-19 is a bit surreal. I am constantly thinking about what to record about this moment. What will be important for future generations to know? How will we talk to children about something that could become their first and most formative memories? What moments will prove most monumental? Will we even recognize a turning point when it comes?
I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. I do know that I feel a bit like a boiling frog. Every day — no, every hour — brings new and distressing information, and restrictions that seemed incremental have landed us in a situation I couldn’t even have imagined two weeks ago.
What I can tell you is that even while I am social distancing at home and trying to find ways to reduce anxiety, I am also trying hard to stay connected with the world around me, to absorb all the news — good and bad — and to reach out to those I care about. This is a moment to share our various vulnerabilities and to connect with our neighbors — even virtually.
In that spirit, I want to share with you some of my vulnerabilities as an oral historian in a behind-the-scenes look at a recent interview. As interviewers, I think we push some of the human experience out of our minds when it comes to producing oral histories, because we are — rightly — focused on documenting the stories we record with narrators, and on the historical nature of our work. But, “this is a people business,” as my colleague, Todd Holmes, likes to say, and both the interviewer and narrator bring a lot of baggage into each situation. Sometimes literally.
In November 2019, I traveled to Delaware for an oral history with a woman I was very excited to interview. But even though I’ve lived in Massachusetts, I’m never enthusiastic about traveling during the winter. I’m a California girl through and through.
So with reluctance, I packed my recording equipment and winter coat — the real one, not my NorCal one — and flew across the country.
I have a checkered record in winter air travel, so I’m always nervous about this. But traveling with recording equipment is doubly stressful. I carry on my purse with my computer, as well as my camera and microphones and SD cards. However, I have to check my camera tripod stand and the stand for my portable light. The light itself I try to gently squish into my suitcase, which is difficult when you need to pack bulky sweaters.
You’ve probably guessed where this is going. I flew from Oakland to Philadelphia, but my suitcase did not. I looked around the empty luggage carousel and thought, So I guess this is happening.
True, I was lucky that my tripod bag arrived. This meant that at the very least, I could put my camera on the tripod and conduct an interview. But what about my interview outline nestled safely in my suitcase? What about the carefully-curated professional winter wardrobe I packed for the two days of interview sessions? Oh, those were long gone, the airline company told me. If I was lucky, I would be reunited with them before I left the East Coast.
After racing to the rental car location, I had to find an open store at 10:30 at night. I was woefully unprepared to complete this mission in rural Pennsylvania — or was I in Delaware already? I bought emergency hygiene products and the first sweater I saw that wouldn’t interfere with my lavalier mic.
Before falling into a fretful sleep, I texted my narrator about the situation and the potential for delays for our first session, depending on any lingering issues I faced in the morning. It was fine, she assured me, all would be well.
The next morning after I drove to the interview location in rural Delaware, I parked at the top of a hill and lugged my equipment what felt like a mile in the cold. In fact, my rental car was kind enough to warn me that conditions were freezing.
When I extended my hand in greeting, my narrator started coughing up a storm. Oh God, I thought, is she even going to be able to sit for these interviews? Was the baggage situation an omen? No, she assured me, she had brought supplies like cough syrup and tea. She could make it through.
After two sessions separated by a short lunch, it was apparent that the cough medicine wasn’t working. My narrator was truly sick and soldiering her way through my questions — sometimes forgetting her train of thought. I was also distracted by the outline I printed with a hotel printer clearly in need of new toner. On top of which, I felt so unprofessional in my travel jeans and ill-fitting, new sweater that I found it difficult to feel “authoritative.” All in all, we were a miserable bunch.
I left that interview and drove directly to the airport to the luggage I was assured was waiting for me — maybe, probably, depending on the service personnel who answered the phone. After a two-hour round trip to the airport and my recovered suitcase in hand, I figured the situation could only improve.
But then I woke up the next day to a text from my narrator. Her car wouldn’t start, and she would be late because she needed to pick up a rental car. Why couldn’t we catch a break here?!
When we finally met up, my narrator and I coughed and sputtered our way through the final interview session, hoping that we hit upon the most historically-salient points of her life and work.
I think it’s safe to say this was not my most technically proficient oral history interview. To make matters worse, my narrator was herself a practitioner of oral history. But when I reviewed the transcript from this interview just a month or two later, instead of feeling utterly horrified from a barrage of bad memories, I kept laughing to myself and actually took stock of what I learned from this experience.
I learned to be patient in the face of unexpected and even frustrating interview circumstances. But most importantly, I learned to be patient with myself. Even though I am a professional oral historian, I am also human. Life happens. I don’t always get to be perfect.
And even though this was far from my best oral history interview, it was an accurate snapshot of a moment in both of our lives that influenced the way the story was recorded and how it will be remembered.
We don’t know what tomorrow brings. So even in these trying times, I hope you can still find reasons to laugh, and to show patience for yourself and others.
Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!