Sonia Sotomayor


I learned this week that University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions posted the video of my conversation with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

It was a remarkable event, and I feel quite honored I was part of it. While I was prepared for her to get up from her chair and wander the Davis Concert Hall, it was a first for me to lose a guest in the shadows. At some points I was casting questions into the void; at least that’s what it seemed, with the spotlights in my eyes and her having passed into the darker recesses of the auditorium. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor quite captivated the audience as she roamed up and down the aisles, shaking hands and exchanging a few words here and there. Her responses to questions were thoughtful, of course, but also delivered like a gentle rabbinic scholar combined with a wise aunt.

It is that combination of humanity and thoughtfulness her memoir My Beloved World  exhibits. It proved so helpful to me in preparation for the interview. In it, Sotomayor displays a gift for drawing vivid portraits of family and friends and providing gripping descriptions of her hardscrabble childhood. Often many of her scenes put me in mind of passages from Dickens. I recommend it.

In any case, I’m glad the video is finally available. I hope you enjoy it.

Running Real


I had two remarkable conversations last Sunday. In the afternoon, I spoke with and moderated a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Usually, I like to spend at least an hour or so with my interviewee, a few days before we record. Unfortunately, the justice’s schedule was so full, I only had about 15 minutes with her before we went on stage. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor was warm, engaging and absolutely authentic.

While we spoke, she took the opportunity to step off the stage and saunter up and down the aisles shaking hands with the audience members and even posing for pictures. That was a first for me. By making herself available to the people, and offering thoughtful responses to the questions, she charmed the audience. To be honest, she charmed me as well. I will be posting a link to the video of our conversation when the producers release it.

Today’s posting, however, is drawn from my first conversation last Sunday, and it also deals with an authentic woman. I first met Liz Lyke before she transitioned to her current gender. I’ve talked about a group of grizzled guys in their 60s who gather most Sundays to ski or bike together. They’re called the SCUM, a moniker that stands for Susan’s Class of Unteachable Men. One summer, a few years back, a younger biker showed up and starting riding with us. Since he was obviously several decades our junior and injury free, we began calling him “The Kid.” The Kid was really strong, fast and took the sport seriously. He was also good natured – he let us call him The Kid, after all.

A little more than a year ago he, or I should say she, wrote a heart-wrenchingly earnest and detailed email to the SCUM explaining why we wouldn’t be seeing him, or rather her, much in the near future. He was transitioning to a she. (I found myself slightly disoriented among the pronouns.) With that email, “The Kid” became Elizabeth, or Liz, and she thanked the SCUM for giving her an opportunity to ski and bike with us.

I found the email an incredibly courageous expression of what was obvious a very difficult process. Liz was the first transgender person, I’d ever met. I was only vaguely aware of the national drama playing out with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. When I started Northern Soundings I recognized I wanted very much to talk with Liz and learn more about what led up to, and what followed after, her email to the SCUM. This posting is that conversation.

A Start

I’ve named my blog and eventual podcast Northern Soundings for a couple of reasons. “Soundings” because it will largely consist of recorded conversations, very much a project for the ear. Also, I’m casting my conversations out to take readings of my community. Luckily, I’m associated with a great research university and Fairbanks’ artistically vibrant community. I won’t lack for material.
I don’t have any penetrating insights into the state of things, only a consuming fascination and curiosity with the world and those that make it home. I’m also amazingly lazy. But I’ve made that flaw work to my advantage as a public broadcasting reporter and producer by interviewing those more industrious, creative, and intellectually insightful than I. Selfishly, I seek out writers, artists, scientists and philosophers who ponder about the world and can express themselves. So, if these conversations offer you anything, it will be my guests who do the heavy lifting.
Over the years, my conversations have given me real joy. “Contact high”  best describes what I feel at the end of these discussions. The world actually seems brighter, wider and more vivid as I emerge from the studio.  Though to be fair, that’s probably because most studios are pretty confining and dark.  While I still dabble as an on-call reporter at my public broadcasting home away from home, KUAC-FM,  I wanted a venue where I could continue to explore ideas at length and on my own terms as I ease into retirement.
So, I’m launching my own blog and podcast. I hope it allows me to follow my nose, like the barrel-chested Lab I saw on the University trails last week. I’ll put the moist black pad of my current interest to the wood chips, soil and scattered spruce cones, following the varied scents, tail wagging happily and yanking the leash of some poor interviewee.
For more than a year I’ve had it in my head to invite writer Frank Soos as my first podcast interviewee. I studied with Frank at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and I have the questionable pleasure of toiling in his wake most Sundays, either Nordic skiing or biking, as part of a group known as the SCUM – Susan’s Class of Unteachable Men. (More on that, I’m sure, when I talk with Frank.) He also currently serves as Alaska’s Writer Laureate.The perfect occasion for a podcast presents itself with the publication of Frank’s new book of essays, Unpleasantries. Frank will sit down with me when he returns to Fairbanks later this month.
 In the meantime, my equipment is on order and I’ve cleared out the study in my home to act as a studio. I’ve beefed up my account with WordPress to accommodate mp3 files and I’ve consulted with my friend and far more able podcaster, Jeremy Smith.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to locals. I will be participating in several UAF Summer Sessions events this season. Michelle Bartlett directs the program and over the years has invited me to exercise my love for conversation by interviewing esteemed UAF alums. This year’s interviewee is Ann Tremarello, who arguably has had the most durable influence on the school in its nearly one hundred years. The video interview and live follow-up will take place this Monday, June 6 at 7PM at the Murie Building Auditorium. I hope you can join Ann and me for that.