• TLS Staff

Modern Love: How The New York Times' Column and Podcast Became More Than Guilty Pleasures

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

In one of my journal entries, sometime in mid-July, I wrote - Are we becoming number as a species? (whoops, I meant more numb, you get it).

Photo by Mr.TT on Unsplash

This year, I started to write about what I was feeling and made a conscious effort to write every single thing. Not out of some need to immortalize my feelings or because someone tweeted about it but just to see if I was still feeling- anything at all. Most days went by where I didn’t even open my journal. The deal was to write what I felt. And when days seemed like they were all one day, I just couldn’t differentiate between them. Let alone my feelings. So when mid-July came with all her rains and her gloomy overcast mornings, not to mention the sudden rise in the coronavirus cases around the city, I felt that maybe, just maybe, the changing seasons would bring a change of feelings.

“During Electrical Brain Stimulation(EBS)*, a volley of electrical discharges is delivered directly to several brain regions of interest in awake human subjects to map their functional involvement in sensation and movement, or cognitive functions such as language and memory.

In non-medicinal speak, the above statement means that humans, need some stimulus to respond to. We are reactive beings. There are certain parts of our brain that need to have some kind of sensation in them for us to function the way are supposed to.

And in mid-July, I think my brain needed that. No, scratch that. Right from March. And around the beginning of August, I found myself believing that we as a species weren’t getting more numb, it was just me.

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

So one night, when the rain unabashedly poured down and I lay in the dark on my bed, unable to even close my eyes and begin to sleep, I opened Spotify in hopes of listening to some music, considering that as a lullaby and sleeping. But Spotify’s AI had other plans for me. In my recommendations, I saw The New York Times’ Modern Love podcast. I dismissed it, thinking, “Sheesh, who needs all of this at 2 am in the night?”. Knowing full well, that indulging in the podcast would just be like indulging in the show, resulting in a week of thinking about everything and daydreaming whenever I got a chance. But just then, in the list of episodes, I saw Gillian Jacobs’s name. Now her, I couldn’t avoid. Maybe Spotify knew about my obsession with Community. “Cheeky”, I whispered to myself in the dark and hit play.

Jacobs narrated the story of a woman who went on a date with a man and they each answered a set of questions and hoped that by the end of the list, they would be in love. They hoped for that only because the scientist who formed the questions promised so. Maybe it was Jacobs’s way of talking, with a hint of a chuckle in each word, yet serious and clear, or maybe it was the rain and thunder. I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, it felt like a different day.

The next morning, I was listening to another episode, one narrated by Laura Prepon as I made myself a cup of tea. Prepon told the story of a woman, who had always thought that her age and lack of serious relationships was the reason she was single. But she had come to realize that sometimes it was not her, or the math.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

With Modern Love, my path has been in reverse. One friend mentioned the show in a conversation and said that it made her cry a lot even though she didn’t relate to the characters. I took the casual recommendation and binged the first season. I got to know then, that the stories on the film had once been part of a New York Times column. Somehow that fact only made its way back in my mind again when I heard the podcast. Meghana Chakrabarty, the host, mentioned the column right at the beginning of each episode.

After Laura Prepon was done telling the story of the single woman, Saoirse Ronan told the story of the meaning of language in love. Then it was Greta Gerwig. Then Sandra Oh, Ncuti Gatwa, Jake Gyllenhall, Nick Kroll, and many others. By the time it was Regina King’s turn, I was already making my evening cup of tea.

It was really easy to get sucked onto the vortex of all the stories of other people finding love and about some others who made pacts and vows with their loved ones and then there were some who had lost their love of life. All across the globe, there were these people who were telling stories of their relationships and each one was so different from the other. The bizarre nature of this activity; of humans falling in love and documenting it and then me listening to their stories was only pointed out to me by my cousin the same evening when we went cycling.

“Why do you listen to that podcast? Why listen to stories of people whom you have nothing to do with?”

“Just because they seem so familiar. The people, I mean. They are putting their heart out there for the world to see, I think they deserve credit for that.”

“Okay, but isn’t it all too good to be true?”

“No, they are real stories, of people like us.”

“They are a bit too mushy for my tastes.”

Photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash

Clearly, my cousin thought that I would get my hopes up only to have them quashed later if I continued with this activity of mine. But I couldn’t explain it to her, the feeling I felt when I heard the story of two complete strangers getting together and acknowledging that special bond between them. The probability was too whacky to even imagine. Essentially, they are all stories about human connection. And they helped me in believing that having some sort of connection was still possible, even when the world was locked down and we were asked to physically distance ourselves from others. That was crazy to me, and listening to these stories was escapism, romantic escapism even, but it was much needed when the times called for it. And all of this, I couldn’t explain to my cousin when we were on our bikes about to climb a bridge.

When I got back home, I decided to give the column that started it all, a read. I had time on my hands and enough coffee that kept me going till 4 am in the morning. Essay after essay, I found myself looking at the story of the person who wrote the essay from the perspective of someone who knew that person. Maybe that’s how you are supposed to write a story like that. Write like you are telling someone closest to you, your most intimate story. And maybe that’s why the column does so well. Anyone who reads it feels like they are listening to their friend, telling their story at a house party, or at a sleepover. Every story feels intimate and that’s why you keep on reading essay after essay.

Photo by NPR for Modern Love Podcast

After a few days of reading and listening to Modern Love, I again found numbness creep in. And this time around, I thought that was okay. Because of all these stories that I had read and heard, of all these people, they would have also had days and hours like these before, after, and in-between documenting their story. And that’s O.K. And that, is why, when October came around and one of my friends asked me what do you do when you feel nothing, I didn’t hesitate to answer, “have you heard of Modern Love by The New York Times?”

- Janaki Tulshibagwale


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