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Most of us are susceptible to the allure of a good love story told well. Since 2004, The New York Times (NYT) newspaper has been inviting readers to submit essays about their experiences of modern love for a series called, well, Modern Love. The NYT started turning some of these tales into animated shorts of up to 5 minutes a couple of years ago. And from 20 January, it started producing these “stories of love, loss and redemption” as a weekly podcast, hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti of Radio Boston, WBUR, station and available for free on iTunes. There have been 20 episodes so far—one releases every Wednesday, but there have been some bonus episodes uploaded on other days.
Each podcast, of 11-23 minutes (the bonus episodes are shorter), has three elements: A celebrity guest reads out the essay, then there’s a discussion with the writer about the current status of the relationship described, and then some thoughts from the editor of Modern Love, Daniel Jones, on what it was about the story that caught his imagination.
The stories people share on Modern Love (the column and the podcast) are diverse. There are stories about divorce and remarriage; the illness of a spouse; a relationship seen through a shared Netflix history; and a cynic’s dream come true, a seemingly serendipitous connection that was based on lies and deceit.
Stories are a great way to make sense of the times we live in, and modern love stories are no exception. Take, for example, A Millennial’s Guide To Kissing by Emma Court. The story is about the writer’s brief encounter with a boy on a trip organized by non-profit Birthright Israel, which takes Jewish-Americans on 10-day visits to Israel. On the way back, in an aeroplane, they kiss. When they part ways in the US, he leaves her with a strange goodbye: “See you never.”
Court explains in the essay how this response is symptomatic of her generation, in which people hit the “Add Friend” button from the safety of Facebook but are often scared to have expectations or voice their feelings lest these are not reciprocated—even if it means never seeing the other person again. In one segment, she observes that in an earlier time, having the last word was a sign of wit. Now it’s the ultimate put-down because it means your remark doesn’t even merit a response.
In the discussion that follows, Court admits she “did speak to See-You-Never-Boy” one more time after their plane ride together. She reached out to him before submitting the essay to NYT, and he asked to read it.
The episode with Court’s story, aired on 16 March, was followed up by an 8-odd minute bonus episode during which listeners phoned in to share stories about where they met their partners, lovers and spouses.
What is appealing about Modern Love is that not all the tales are mushy ones fit for the next romantic comedy. There are also stories of strange love, of betrayal, of affection between siblings, of love and friendship growing in unlikely places—there is even one about a couple that dropped off the radar of mainstream newscasters after one of them spent two years in the limelight. In Between The Bars, Modern Love tells the story of Joshua Fattal, one of three American hikers held in captivity in Iran for two years on suspicion of spying. When he returns to the US, he finds himself changed in many ways. He locks himself out of his apartment because he’s not used to using keys any more, he shouts at his girlfriend and feels a sense of relief every time he leaves the house to go out. The story is about him overcoming difficulties and his partner sticking with him through thick and thin. They are now married and have a seven-year-old daughter.
Listening to a story for 20 minutes can be tedious if it hasn’t been done right. The storytelling in Modern Love is pithy. The readers of the stories are performers and public speakers, such as actors Dakota Fanning and Joshua Jackson, and film-maker Judd Apatow. A partial dramatization of the setting, achieved by using sounds such as that of traffic or the phone ringing, helps to build the ambience.
Modern Love has something for everyone. If you scoff at the idea of love at first sight, there’s something for you in Missed Connection. If you tear up at the idea of an ill woman receiving a kidney from her brother, then her husband and finally, a friend (she now has five kidneys in her body), then I See My Superhero is for you. Each week, the podcast shines a light on a different kind of love.