NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In a new essay for The Root, writer Abdul Ali recounts the promise he made to his newborn daughter in a hospital room four years ago. I'm going to be the best father you could ever want. Back then, he was in junior college, not married and, in his words, unprepared for the weight of caring for a new life. Since then, Abdul Ali has tried to make good on that promise, and he joins us in just a moment. But his story raises a question: Where did he go, who did he turn to learn to become a father?
Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. There's also a conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Ask Amy syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson joins us to talk about parents, kids and tattoos. But first, learning to be a father. And with us here in Studio 3A is Abdul Ali, a regular contributor to TheRoot.com. And it's good to have you with us today.
Mr. ABDUL ALI (Author, Contributor, TheRoot.com): Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And I'd like to begin - there's a poem that you've written about this. But you haven't brought it with you. And we'll bring it - we'll get a copy and…
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: …ask you to read it in just a few minutes. But I describe that promise that you made to your daughter. You made that promise understanding that you had grown up without a father. And so I wondered when you made that promise - I know you've worked hard to keep it. But where did you turn to learn to become a dad?
Mr. ALI: That's a very good question. I think most of it was improvisation. It's kind of a like being a first generation college student. I mean, there are of course a lot of books out there, but you have to, sort of, have in your mind what it is you want to do. You pay attention, and you sort of make it up as you go along.
CONAN: There's a difference, though, between baby care and fatherhood, don't you think?
Mr. ALI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I would like to say that some of it was innate, you know. But, I mean, from the moment, you know, Kayla was born, you know, there was a connection. You know, and - you know, I would talk to my mom, you know, my grandparents raised me. And so there's all these stories about, you know, what a responsible father does, you know, and you sort of pick up. And because I was a young father - I mean, we were growing together, I guess.
CONAN: What was it that first puzzled you? What was the first question that you really needed an answer to? I mean, other than how did you get those tabs off those diaper things?
Mr. ALI: Oh, well, I guess the first question was if I could do it. And I think once, you know, the - you know, I got that answer clear in my head, I think the rest sort of fell in place. But it's - I think it's a lot of negotiating. You know, how do you go to school full time and work multiple jobs and still be there? How do you define there? You know? So, I just think it's an ongoing process of negotiating, you know, how to be there and the rules. I mean, there are no rules. You make them up as you go along.
CONAN: And at the same time you found that bond with your child, you had to be thinking about your father who wasn't there.
Mr. ALI: That's true. I had to think - I mean, I don't know. In lit criticism, they say the absence is present. So, growing up you - even though, you know, the father isn't there, you sort of feel that absence, sort of haunting you like Poe's "Raven." And I don't know. I mean, one of the things I had to do is sort of make peace, you know, with that. In order for me to be whole and be a good dad, I had to sort of deal with those things that I had to deal with. For me, I think being an artist, it was helpful, you know, to be able to write about those things, to have a community of people that I could go to and share these thoughts, these feelings with. And, I mean, it's a great - there's value in knowing that you're not alone in that particular experience.
CONAN: And I have to point out that though we would think about this the other way, being the parent of a small child, a baby and now a toddler - and now getting out of toddlerhood, I suspect. It's been four years.
Mr. ALI: Starting kindergarten.
CONAN: Starting kindergarten, yeah. But this is not always the easiest experience in the world. It can be extremely frustrating. And I wonder about the temptations. There have to be moments where you are - where there's anger. I know I did when I was a dad.
Mr. ALI: Tell me what you mean by anger.
CONAN: Anger at yourself and anger at your child - tell me what you want. Why are you just screaming at me? Why cant you - why can't we set - you know, why can't we find out? You never understood the impulse ever in your life towards abuse of a child until you have one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALI: Wow. That's - how do I answer that? I don't - talking to my mom a lot, I don't know if I felt that anger, because number one, I knew that you know Kayla didn't ask to be here.
Mr. ALI: So, I mean…
CONAN: Logic doesn't have a lot to do with it.
Mr. ALI: You know, like I know that in an interview, Toni Morrison said two parents aren't enough to raise the child. And I really do believe that, you know. I mean, sometimes those times Kayla with her mom or daycare - I mean, those are the times that I get to put it all together. And, of course, this is nothing new. Single parents - moms have been doing this forever. But I don't know if there was that anger. I think, more or less, there was that fear that maybe I might not be up to task, or maybe I might drop one of those balls I was trying to juggle. I think that was more my fear, my experience than anger, you know, at Kayla.
CONAN: Or frustration. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. ALI: You know, because it's kind of like - I mean, there were a lot of voices. You know, like, when Kayla was very young, there was this camp saying, you know, you should go to school part time, you know, and not full time. And then there was another camp saying, well, don't listen to them, you know. The best thing you can do is be educated so that you'll be angry(ph) twice, you know. So I think knowing when to listen and not to listen at all of the feedback you get from the background noise, I think that was very important for me.
CONAN: And now we do have a copy of that poem we mentioned at the beginning of this interview. Go ahead.
Mr. ALI: Okay. This is "On Fatherhood."
Sometimes I choke on your laughter, watch with green envy how your face beams when I enter the room. Is it petty of me to lament that I never had a father like you do to annoy, mimic, question, to lift your perfect feet up, to wipe your butt, fall asleep on, share a face with, a last name, a space, time two arms?
CONAN: "On Fatherhood," by Abdul Ali. Joining us now is Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina - a father himself. He's with us from a studio on the Duke campus. Nice to have you back in the program.
Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (African-American Studies, Duke University): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Where did you go to learn to be a father?
Prof. NEAL: I'm much like Abdul. It was, you know, improvisation, instinct, talking to close friends, many of them my age or a little younger who were already fathers and listening to some of their concerns and some of the pitfalls and some of the mistakes they made. You know, what you find is that ultimately, the children themselves give you a lot of guidance. I spent a lot of time doing, you know, those first couple of years with my oldest daughter, you know, trying to fit her into my life and into my schedule. And what I realized that, you know, she would dictate, you know, very much so, what my schedule was and what I could do and what I could do it. And once I understood that was the program, it made it such - so much easier to think about this parenting thing in a more productive way.
CONAN: Understood and accept it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. NEAL: Absolutely. And in my case, you know, my - both my daughters are adopted. In the case of my oldest daughter, you know, we found out, you know, that we were going to adopt her about three weeks before we brought her home. So there really wasn't this nine-month period where I could sit and think and -you know, it was less than the month from the time that we first went into the adoption agency before she came home with us. So we really had a very short learning curve, and I can't say that I ever had any idea of what it would take to be a good father. I mean, my father was around, but he was a very traditional father.
I mean, he didn't have the suit and tie and the briefcase, but you know, he went to work, did his job, came home, distilled, instilled discipline when he needed to, but we had never talked about the parenting process. So it was very much something that, you know, I improvised, you know, the best that I could.
CONAN: Well three weeks, nine months, nothing prepares you for the actual reality, does it, Abdul?
Mr. ALI: Absolutely not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. Larry joins us on the line from Grand Rapids.
LARRY (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, how are you?
CONAN: Well, thank you.
LARRY: Fatherhood is an issue that's very close to my heart in many, many ways. My wife and I were married 14 years before we were able to have a child of our own. I grew up without a father but I have to give a lot of credit to my uncle, who is 11 years older than I. He was a great influence on my life. He is gay, and his love and tenderness to me helped show me how to treat kids and how to be a good uncle and then later a good father, and…
LARRY: Being a father is the most important thing I've ever done by far.
CONAN: And so that older male role model really became a model for you as a father.
LARRY: Right. I did have a step-father in my adolescence and he was not the model that I wanted to follow as far as how to deal with my own children. So I feel very fortunate that my uncle was around. And I often tell him that, you know, one of the miracles of this whole thing is that if he wasn't gay, he might not have been the same kind of person to me to be able to show me the kindnesses that he did. So I feel fortunate for that.
CONAN: Abdul Ali, was there someone, a male in your life growing up who maybe you modeled your fatherhood on a little bit?
Mr. ALI: Several. There was my grandfather, who, you know, came of age during the Great Depression. And he was a race man, and he would talk a lot at dinner tables about, you know, how to best represent the race, and this stayed with me growing up. So I knew whatever I did, I had to make sure that I made my family proud. And my uncle, you know, he's a photographer. He was definitely an influence on me growing up and also just sort of watching television, you know, seeing…
CONAN: Well, Bill Cosby.
Mr. ALI: Well, I wasn't going to say Bill Cosby. I was going to say, like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. Those people, those voices were always in the back…
CONAN: You watch public television.
Mr. ALI: I do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Mark Anthony Neal, I wonder if there's anybody who you grew up with, of course your dad, I would think.
Mr. NEAL: My dad. I had examples of uncles. I had examples of coaches. I had examples of male teachers. You know, there were actually few male teachers that I had contact with, but they all, in various ways, became models.
You know for me, it was always thinking about it in kind of a piecemeal sense. You know, there were examples on popular culture, in my everyday life, extended family. And I took examples in all those cases about, you know, how important, you know, parenting could be and fatherhood in particular. I think the critical point is that as many adults on board as possible, you know, makes life great for children that are growing up.
CONAN: Larry, thanks so much for the call.
LARRY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Mark Anthony Neal, who you just heard, and also with Abdul Ali. Where do you go to learn to become a father? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Men who become fathers often find the learning curve is steep. Children don't come with users' manuals. There are books about fatherhood, for sure, and movies. Steve Martin stars in quite of a few of them, but Hollywood is probably not your best source of inspiration for how to be a father.
So where do you go? Who do you turn to learn to become a father? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Abdul Ali wrote "Rewriting Fatherhood" on theroot.com. He's also editor for The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Also with us, Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke, and he blogs at newblackman.blogspot.com. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's see if we can go to Rob, Rob with us from Southfield in Michigan.
ROB (Caller): Yes. My grandfather was my, pretty much my example, pretty much a blueprint for how I raised my son. He was pretty much old-school and, you know, the steel-worker, lunch-pail, you know, disciplinarian, pay your bills on time, that kind of man. So I - it was like - I grew up without a father. So it was my only example of a father I could use to try to do the same with my son. I had him when I was in high school, so I was a very young man when he was born. So I made a lot of mistakes, but the things I did right, you know, it was because of my grandfather's example.
CONAN: That's an interesting story, Rob. You also said something that I think is very important. You made a lot of mistakes. Mark Anthony Neal, one of the things you have to learn to understand is you will not, as much as you would like to be, be a perfect father. You will make mistakes.
Mr. NEAL: Oh absolutely, and every time, you know, I hear my daughters make their arguments back to me when I ask them to do something, I'm always reminded, you know, of what I've instilled in them that will make them wonderful adults, you know, 20 years from now. But as children now, it just kills me. But yeah, there are going to be mistakes. And sometimes the kids know that you're making mistakes and you try to find a way to graciously accept, you know, when you make mistakes and to articulate that to them. But also to instill the fact that, you know, you're still the figure, you know, with your partner, that you know, they need to follow.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Rob.
ROB: You're welcome.
CONAN: Here's an email from Fred: My first child is due to be born any day now. And one thing people keep telling me is, your life will never be the same.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: It seems funny to me that so many people would tell me something so obvious, which makes me think there's something more to it. Any insight? Abdul?
Mr. ALI: I mean, yes, there is the obvious that your life forever changes when you have a child, but I don't think it has to be always negative. You know, like one of the things I've learned is how to negotiate. You know, I was in college when Kayla(ph) was born. So I had to figure out how to go to school and then also, you know, have Kayla with me. And it worked out.
You know, I just think that when there's a will, you know, there's a way. Kayla goes to poetry readings with me. You know, Kayla - I didn't treat it as something separate, you know, like another life, being a parent. You know, I was like I'm a parent and I'm trying to be a writer and, you know, finish school and all those things.
CONAN: Mark, what do you think?
Mr. NEAL: I mean, there are obviously sacrifices. You know, my wife and I always talk about the vacations that, you know, we haven't been able to take for the last decade because there are now kids on board. But at the same time, I've had experiences because I am a parent that I would never have had, you know, without being a father that's just made my life so much richer, made my work so much richer.
You know, one of the things that immediately struck me, you know, about fatherhood is that it actually made me much more productive because it was clear that, you know, when I needed to write, when I needed to read, when I needed to think, you know, I had to take advantage of that time because once I got home and got back on daddy duty, I wasn't going to be able to do anything but give attention to my children.
CONAN: Here's an email from Aaron(ph) in San Francisco, who suggests that the answer of where do you go to learn to become a father is to be a camp counselor.
I grew up with three good men in my life: father, step-father and paternal grandfather. They all have flaws but many strong points. Now with a two-year-old son of my own, I realize my nine summers working at camp from the ages of 16 to 24 is what really prepared me for fatherhood.
Of course, the real thing still shocked me in many ways. The responsibility of being someone's counselor for eight weeks is nothing like parenthood, but it does put you on an island with a group of kids for whom you have daily responsibility, you care deeply, they frustrate you terribly. You learn what works and what doesn't with discipline, when to lead, when to be a buddy. I don't believe that observing a perfect father could provide such experiential training as that.
And I wonder, Abdul, did you have anything analogous to being a counselor at summer camp?
Mr. ALI: No. I mean, you have cousins, you may babysit, but I don't think - nothing quite prepares you, you know, like having your own, you know, where you have to really, really be responsible 24/7 even if you're not physically next to your child, you know.
CONAN: Let's go next to Michael, Michael with us from Altoona, Pennsylvania.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, well, thanks for taking my call. I've tried many times, never was able to get through.
CONAN: Well, congratulations.
MICHAEL: I would say I have to attribute my own father as instructing me, and I lost him so early. My father was a police officer outside of Buffalo, New York for 30 years. And when my first daughter was born, 1981, eight months later my father passed away, Christmas morning. And he was never there to further guide me but because he was such a great father to me growing up, learning patience under adverse conditions.
He worked street work for 30 years, so a lot of times he wasn't there at family functions. And I followed in his footsteps and just retired three years ago after 30 years of police work. And a lot of the things that he, you know, embedded in me in raising, I tried to carry on in that trait in raising my own two children. And you know, I'm thankful that I had him as long as I did, and I've been married now myself for over 30 years, and my children, I think, have grown to be fabulous kids. And I'm there for them any chance I get, and I'm just so thankful for the direction he gave me. And I don't know what else I can say. I miss him dearly.
CONAN: Michael, thank you for that. We appreciate it.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask. Michael used an interesting word, and that is patience. I had my first child when I was 30 and marvel at someone like you, Abdul, who's much younger than that. I struggle with the idea that I would have had the patience at the age of 20 or so to - I - do kids teach you patience?
Mr. ALI: Kayla taught me a lot about patience. Patience, and I don't know, I think it makes you take your time with everything, you know? And I think that was a good thing for me, you know? Even with the writing, you know, going too fast can be a bad thing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Deadlines can be a bad thing, too. Mark Anthony Neal, patience. Do you learn that as a father?
Mr. NEAL: You do, and I had never been a patient person. But, you know, when you have to try to explain things to a child, and when you have a child that wants to explain things to you but doesn't always have grasp of the language that you would like to use, it does in fact, you know, take a lot of patience and become much more intuitive about emotions. I mean, you learn how to read their bodies in ways, or you know, body language in ways that you hadn't been forced to do so before.
CONAN: Let's go next to Joe, Joe with us from Boston.
JOE (Caller): Hi. I have a 16-month-old daughter, and I have another one due in the next week. And one thing, I was the oldest of eight children growing up, and while it taught me logistical things, like how to change a diaper and how to clean up a mess, the big thing it taught me was how to deal with stressful situations and take on just the chaos and just try to remain calm, cool and collected. But I didn't appreciate the level of responsibility that comes with fatherhood and how that would be stretched the outermost limits…
CONAN: With a 16-month-old and another on the way, getting much sleep there, Joe?
JOE: I am right now. Hopefully, the next one sleeps through the night like the first one does.
CONAN: Well, good luck with that.
JOE: Thank you.
CONAN: And siblings, do they teach us about fatherhood, Mark Anthony Neal?
Mr. NEAL: You know, I wanted to say to the caller that, you know, call us in about three years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NEAL: When both of them are in the back seat of the minivan, and you're just trying to have a peaceful drive to the supermarket. It teaches you - and I mean, one of the things - I mean, when you talk about trying to understand how to be a father, and you have the first kid, and suddenly, you know, after they are five or six years old, you think you have it. You know, oh, I got this down, and then the next kid comes. And the next kid is so dramatically different than the first one that it raises all kinds of questions about, you know, your skill set. You know, I thought I was a good father, maybe not so, and I think…
CONAN: It also raises questions about the laws of genetics. How could they be so different?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NEAL: And I think in the long run for me, it actually forced me to be much better in terms of dealing with disparate personalities in general because I have to manage that every day at my own household.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. Let's get this email in from Robert. As a young teenager, I read a quip that was more profound to me than it was funny. No one is completely useless, they can always serve as a bad example. As the son of an abusive alcoholic, I took it to heart and swore I would never be like him. My mother told me, just before she passed away, that I was a wonderful father to my daughter and joked that she didn't know where I got it. That's…
Prof. NEAL: Wow.
CONAN: That's an interesting - that's pretty profound.
Here's another email. This from Oscar in San Antonio. Without a father, I looked inward to figure out what my kids wanted. I constantly ask myself what would work for me the best as a kid in this situation. It works great for me and my kids, I was also part of the Big Brother program and it was perfect pre-daddy training - I guess the equivalent to summer camp. I could then coached my kids and continue what we learned from kids' past and other coaches that we are all coaches' dads to our kids. I want more kids, and I'm 45.
There's another lesson to be learned.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to John, John with us from Independence, Missouri.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. I was going to say that I grew up with a decent father. I mean, he was good to us. I now have a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old daughter. And I think the person that I learned the most from is my wife.
I watch her and how much her ability to engage with these three very darling, but sometimes very annoying little girls. And it - I'm amazed that she's able to dedicate herself so completely. And it's by watching her that I think I've -I have learned to some degree, and I'm still learning, how to really engage myself with these three little tiny people who are - who look to me to be, well, their father.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Mark Anthony Neal, you've certainly have to look at your life partner in a new light when she becomes mother.
Prof. NEAL: I was really fortunate in that, you know, my wife and I had had some conversations about what kind of children we wanted to raise and how -what kind of parents we wanted to be. And she was very supportive of my own interest to be really engaged, you know, in our daughter's life. And so, she gave me, you know, a wide breadth. I mean, she gave me a lot of space to do what I could bring to the table as a parent, you know?
I always remember a conversation I had with my mother-in-law, great woman. And this - when my daughter's 2 years old and she climbs on a chair and my, you know, mother-in-law said - to my daughter stop, you know, stop acting like a boy, you know, little girls don't act that way. And I always thought it was great that my wife actually gave me the space to respond to that with my daughter with this notion that, you know, she can do anything that she wants and not feel restrained by her gender.
So I think my wife was very supportive in that regard. And that our kids are the way they are now because we took seriously that parenting was a partnership.
CONAN: Abdul Ali, we mentioned early on, at the time your daughter was born, you weren't married. How did her arrival change that and how did your - her mother's responses change your respect for her?
Mr. ALI: Well, certainly, I think that, you know, Kayla being born, that sort of tested, you know, all of that. But like the caller said, I think you do gain a great deal of respect watching, you know, how, you know, mothers deal with, you know, children - you learn a lot.
And also, I just think in my case, not being married, it sort of taught me a lot about conflict resolution, you know, because I think that that's something very real, you know, for unmarried parents, you know? I had it in my mind that it had to work, you know, somehow, even though, you know, we weren't as fortunate as, say, a Mark Anthony Neal, or you know, or some of the callers.
CONAN: Thanks, John, very much for the call.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Anthony Neal and with Abdul Ali about where you go to learn to become a father.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And David is on the line. David calling from Portland, Oregon.
DAVID (Caller): Hello.
DAVID: Well, one of the missing aspects that I've heard - not heard in the show was, you know, that my father, a loving father, I learned a lot from him. I think I filled his shoes quite well, which eventually resulted in a divorce. And my wife and I splitting up and splitting our time with our three girls, ages eight, 10 and 16.
Through three months of therapy, I have discovered the father who I want to be. And it's from that inwards that an amalgamation of both the father I was taught to be as well as the one that I want to be that allows me to - I really - I feel like I've gone up a whole level. And…
CONAN: David, are you saying you learned some bad lessons from your dad?
DAVID: Yeah. I did, most certainly. My father was never there for swim meets, baseball games. He was always traveling. Being the - playing the role of the provider and valuing that more than being a doting father in attentive form. So…
CONAN: Mark Anthony Neal, that may be something you have some apathy with.
Prof. NEAL: You know, I think there's a lot of pressure in our society on men in general about what they bring to the table as fathers. And very often, the thing that seemed to be most important in terms of societal expectations is that men are providers and disciplinarians.
And I think there's a lot of fear. I know I had a lot of fear that somehow wouldn't live up to that particular responsibility, that somehow I would be failing my daughters, you know, if I couldn't provide in them in a way that allow them to do whatever they wanted to do, you know?
So I can sympathize with a father, you know, who felt that he really had to do all that he could to make money in order to provide for his family. You know, by that same token, you know, trying to find those moments where you can, in fact, have serious engagement with your children.
You know, my father was someone who works 60 hours a week, six days a week. I very rarely saw him. You know, he made no school events, no baseball games. I mean, nothing of that nature. I mean, it just wasn't possible for him to do that.
But when we did have quality time in those Sunday mornings, right, he made sure that it was quality time, where we could go to baseball games, where we could listen to gospel music, where we could watch TV, go to the movies, et cetera.
And I think, you know, fathers have to make choices, you know, in concert with their partners, obviously, about, you know, what is the best way they can figure into the lives of their children.
I'm fortunate as an academic, you know, who has so much more flexibility to my time that I can make most of these events, all right, I can be at all the swimming meets.
But the reality is that, particularly in this economic - this particular economic moment, you know, there are a lot of fathers who are going to have to sacrifice real time with their children in order to pay the bills and keep the mortgage paid and keep a roof over their head and all those things.
CONAN: David, good luck.
DAVID: Thank you.
CONAN: And we'd like to thank our guests today, Mark Anthony Neal, you just heard, professor of African-American studies at Duke University, blogs at newblackman.blogspot.com, and with us today from the Duke University campus. Thanks as always for your time.
Prof. NEAL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And we'd also like to thank Abdul Ali, a contributing writer to The Root and author of "Re-Writing Fatherhood" and host of "The Poet's Corner" on WPFW here in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. ALI: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Up next, fatherhood can get a whole lot messier than dirty diapers. What happens when your teen wants a tattoo? "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson on the divisive issue of ink. Don't go away.
This is NPR News.
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