Prize-Winning Poet: Discovering 'My Dyslexia' At 58 As a child, poet Philip Schultz struggled in school, but it wasn't until his son was diagnosed with dyslexia that Schultz finally had a name for what had frustrated him all those years. In My Dyslexia, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet revisits his childhood struggles and how he coped.
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Prize-Winning Poet: Discovering 'My Dyslexia' At 58

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Prize-Winning Poet: Discovering 'My Dyslexia' At 58

Prize-Winning Poet: Discovering 'My Dyslexia' At 58

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. By almost any measure, Philip Schultz has to be regarded as a great success. He makes a living writing and teaching poetry, which he loves. He lives with his family and their dog near the beach on Long Island. He's even got a Pulitzer Prize.

He also learned at the age of 58 that he has dyslexia. The late diagnosis suddenly explained a great deal, especially about his childhood. I never meant to be annoying, forgetful, delayed, overwhelmed and dumb-sounding, and looking, he writes in a new book. I never wanted to be made fun of or anger my teachers or keep an entire class late because I didn't understand a concept. But that's what often happened as a consequence of my learning disability.

The International Dyslexia Association estimates that nearly one in five people suffer from dyslexia, which among other things makes it difficult to read. And many people go undiagnosed for years. If that's you, how has dyslexia changed your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Ben Zimmer on ground zero. But first, Philip Schultz joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is called "My Dyslexia." Nice to have you with us today.

PHILIP SCHULTZ: Thank you, Neal, it's good to be here.

CONAN: You describe an important moment in your life, a meeting with a reading tutor when you were a kid who asked you what you wanted to do when you grow up.

SCHULTZ: Yes, Mr. Joyce(ph). I recall him actually fondly. I would go to him once a week on Saturdays, and then I could reward myself afterwards by going to a movie at the Paramount across the street. He worked with me to try to teach me to read and without any success at all. And one day, out of I think frustration, asked me what I thought I was going to do in life if I couldn't read.

And surprising both of us, I said I wanted to - I probably would be a writer. And he laughed. He was very overweight. I remember he - the laughter rocked his body from shoes to his chins, and he couldn't stop laughing. And it was an interesting concept.

Why would I want to be a writer if I couldn't read or write? And I had no idea. I don't think I understood this until I wrote this book.

CONAN: It could have been you were just a stubborn cuss.


SCHULTZ: Well, there's that aspect too. I don't know. It's an interesting thought. I'm not sure I can even to this day tell you why I - of course I never read anything. I think I enjoyed - I come from a family of Russian immigrant Jews who were all big storytellers, and they would get together and one would try to top the other's story, and they would get - stories would get bigger and bigger, and the lying aspect and the exaggerations would get large, and I grew up thinking that this was a picture or an aspect, the landscape of reality and that I would like to do some of that.

So maybe I was already influenced by that.

CONAN: You further describe that night when you were at home and your mother was - you and your mother would read comic books, I think a Blackhawk comic book, one of my favorites too.

Oh really?


CONAN: And your mother would read the words, and you would sound out the sounds.

SCHULTZ: I would remember wanting to will myself into being able to read because it really - I mean, I was now in the fifth grade. I had been held back, I guess technically twice, kicked out of one school, going to another one, and there was no third school to go to. I mean, it was going to be reform school or something bad like that, and my mother's disappointment.

I was an only child, and she was living through me with a sense of expectation, and she had had to leave school in the 10th grade, and she wanted the world for me. So here I was, as much for her as for myself, wanting to learn to read. And I had no idea how to go about it. And there were these words, and there were sounds, and I had no idea, of course, that I had trouble with word retrieval or even hearing what people were saying to me or not able to recognize sounds of words.

Dyslexics have a torturous relationship with foreign languages because of their own relationship with their own native language. So I remember struggling to look at words. I had no idea what a syllable was or a phoneme and try to reproduce the sound she was saying and recognize the marks, the marks on the page as words.

And it was wondrous. I eventually just imagined being a little boy who was quote-unquote normal, who could learn like all the kids around me that I felt excluded from. And I imagined myself into one of these, into someone who could read, and it was like a ladder. It was like walking up, step by step, through imagining that I was someone other than myself, someone who wasn't limited in the way I was limited.

And it worked eventually. I guess the level of frustration had reached its peak, and it had - something had to give, and suddenly I was reading these comics. I was looking at those bubbles, those dialogue bubbles, and suddenly there were words, recognizable words, very few at first.

And her excitement was just great, and she would read another word and read a phrase, and then I was reading. It seemed magical.

CONAN: Had she asked you at that moment what you wanted to do when you grow up, a costumed crime fighter?


SCHULTZ: Well, I think, you know, I had told her, going back to your original question, that Mr. Joyce had asked me what I wanted to do, and I said a writer, and she thought that was also comical. And she was a reader. And she suddenly wondered at this fantasy, of wanting to be a writer for someone who can't read.

And you know, when you think about it, it is an ambition, isn't it? It's like it's the furthest extreme of - from the ignorance of illiteracy to the proficiency of someone who is apt, good with words.

CONAN: Not merely good, you conclude your book by noting that you had mastered something that in earlier life had mastered you.

SCHULTZ: Well, you mean with poetry or with writing? I would like to think so. I feel that my relationship with words now is a more comfortable one, that I can find the words, struggle to find the words to articulate ideas. And I even - right now I'm more - my relationship or anxious relationship is more with trying to understand what I'm trying to say or what I'm feeling and what the ideas are.

And then I can safely assume that the words will be there now. I think I can give myself that much. I don't know if for many years that was always the case. If I get the idea, and I get some clarity on how I feel about that idea, then I can safely assume I'll find the right words. I do have that confidence. That hasn't always been there.

CONAN: Our guest is Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author most recently of "My Dyslexia." We'd like to hear from those of you in the audience who share that condition, 800-989-8255. How has it changed your life? Email us, Fred(ph) is on the line, Fred calling from Fort Wayne. Fred, are you there?

FRED: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Fred, go ahead, please.

FRED: Yeah, hi. Yeah, I have dyslexia real bad, and I'm trying to communicate, and I thought maybe you'd have - help me with some words on how to say it to the world. I discovered how to put lightning in a bottle. I put (unintelligible) lightning inside of a bottle, and I can make electricity. And I'm trying to find the right words to say this to the world. Do you have any advice?

SCHULTZ: Finding the right words to express yourself?

FRED: Yeah, to describe, you know, something no one's ever described before. I'm harnessing energy from a dimension that doesn't exist, that we can't see, and I'm having a hard time communicating. And I thought maybe you had some advice on how to describe something no one's ever thought of before.

CONAN: It might be difficult, Fred, but physics textbooks may have some of the terminology you need.

FRED: Oh, I know what's in the books of what we know. But I'm describing, you know, something that - you know, dark matter is the word closest used in nature that they want to describe in the natural world as this energy matter that we can't see. And I'm tapping into it. Is there any advice on how to say such a - you know, it's - to me it's common sense, but to this world it's very stupid. We're still burning coal and oil, and there's a better way to get electricity to flow in this world.

CONAN: Well, I certainly hope you find the right words, Fred, because we could all use such a discovery, and...

FRED: Maybe I found them today, thank you.

CONAN: Good luck. It - Fred's call brings to mind a student that you describe who, one, was dyslexic but knew it, unlike you, and won a prize for invention and pointed out that her ability through her life, her need to solve complex problems forcefully, taught her tricks of mind that gave her an edge.

SCHULTZ: Oh yes, yes. This was at an award ceremony that Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities in Connecticut puts on. And she won this award. She won an award, I believe it was in physics, goes back to our caller, for - through NASA.

And she - it was a national competition, and she knew that having struggled all her life - she was 16 - with dyslexia and having to overcome the problems it created was her secret weapon, she put - that it would give her an edge over the competition, and it sure enough did.

CONAN: Philip Schultz's book is titled "My Dyslexia." If his story is your story, give us a call. How has dyslexia changed your life? 800-989-8255. Email Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. And after Philip Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2008, Churchill High, a school for students with learning disabilities, invited him to deliver their commencement address. Walking out, he says he felt awkward and ashamed, but that shame melted away when a student embraced him and whispered: I'll never forget what you said.

You can read more about how his experience at Churchill High School sparked his memoir "My Dyslexia" in an except at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Many people with dyslexia find ways to cope for decades without ever being diagnosed. If that's you, how has dyslexia changed your life? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Philip Schultz is with us from our bureau in New York. There was much of your life, of course, when you didn't know you had dyslexia. There's a poem in the book that you have called "Disintegration," and you say you wrote this in the late '90s, when I didn't understand I was dyslexic. And I was wondering if you could read it for us.

SCHULTZ: Sure, I would like to. The good thing about this is that the poem tries to outline how the mind falls apart. So it's impossible to screw up the reading of this poem.


SCHULTZ: Disintegration, the way the mind leaves fingerprints on every memory tissue, say all those dreams auditioning for infinitesimally minor roles in insignificant family dramas, walking thin lines between abstract design and routine delusion, not being whole but disavowed, as in denuded.

It happens so quickly. One minute your ideas are listening, and then pain explodes into chronic babble, slicing the tongue in two fervent opinions. Suddenly, everything is twitching. The left side of your body is laughing, but you feel nothing while the body is hysterical with(ph) joy, forget it, pay it no heen(ph), relux(ph) , there are mulch mar spectacular events lappening(ph) . Hang loose, Mr. Moose, dear sweet caboose. I'm stuck up to me noose in rust, compost, lust, un(ph) deluge .

One little piggie, two little piggie, you'll feel like a raging urge 'cause it hurts. It's all I can do, dear gid(ph) , is cream me bleeping head off, first thin(ph) in the merning(ph) , derlin(ph) .


CONAN: The spelling on that is interesting.

SCHULTZ: Yes, you know, that was very easy for me, to miss(ph) to spell things. I enjoyed that aspect of it, like then is T-H-U-N, and God is G-I-D, and dear is D-E-E-R. Actually, I mostly do want to spell dear(ph) and have to catch myself.

You know, it's - if I can say, going back to the previous thing, and this poem illustrates that, is that there's an aspect of frustration and despair to having always struggled to just do something in an average way, in a quote-unquote - in a normal way.

And this young girl had what she recognized as an unfair advantage over the competition because they were only up against a physics problem. She was up against, first, her disability, and having - in overcoming that, the problem itself seemed almost easy. So it's just a note for people with learning disabilities out there, that it's not all a disadvantage. There's a powerful advantage here.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go get some callers on the line, Sean(ph), Sean with us from Chico, California.

SEAN: Hi, hi there. Yeah, I've suffered from dyslexia from an early age. I just remember a serious longing to be considered, you know, one of the normal children, a normal learner. And through that experience, it really made me much more empathetic to those with cognitive deficits.

CONAN: At what age did you learn you had dyslexia?

SEAN: Well, I knew I was different from probably around the age of five. I had a severe speech impediment, which didn't help much with that isolation, but it became apparent to my folks that I was dyslexic when they put me in the first grade. And I had to skip that one. I was - after, you know, evading the bus patrol and trying to walk home.

CONAN: Philip Schultz, you had a stutter.

SCHULTZ: Also, yes. And you know, I - the stutter somehow was comical or funny to other kids, and it caused problems, but I didn't mind that so much because my father had such a bad stutter, and two of his three brothers had - four brothers had bad stutters. So I think now that dyslexia probably ran in the family.

But that was early for you, first grade, and it - that sense of isolation is very profound, isn't it? It just - you are in a box, and you don't know why you're there, and it's very hard not to blame yourself or see it, of course, as your fault, that you're doing something very wrong, and the more protective you become of that, the more isolated you become.

And after a while you just normally shy away from others because you can't - kids particularly have a hard time with differentness, and dyslexics are different. There's facial expressions, the sounds we make. It's - it excludes us from any kind of social contract.

CONAN: Sean, go ahead.

SEAN: Yeah, the funny thing is, I was kind of a fighter, not a physical fighter, but I would definitely not be prevented from reaching out and trying to incorporate, you know, other people in my reality. As strange (unintelligible) for, I think the way I perceived things so much - it just seemed quite different than what I saw other people, the way other people looked at things.

SCHULTZ: You know, it's very important, I think, for you now to try to change and alter how you saw yourself then, if you don't naturally have a sympathy for what you felt and what you were going through, and that's easy to understand because that would hard then, you're - there's a tremendous amount of guilt for that then. It would be awfully important now to create and find that sympathy, because that can really - it could make a large difference.

You're not who you were and who you felt you were or feared you were, and I don't think I came to that until I wrote this book. I know I didn't. And I don't know if I'm there completely yet, but it has made a difference. I'm more forgiving of myself.

You know, you're - I was put in the dummy class when I was - I had repeated third grade. I still didn't know how to read. I didn't learn for another two years. I was with two others. I think one had what I would now call signs of autism, and there were three of us who - and the third was a social - antisocial kid who liked to fight.

And the three of us were placed there, and I remember a teacher coming along and saying that the principal or somebody important was coming by and putting a book in my hands and asking me to pretend to read. And that feeling has never gone away.

I mean, I - when I open a book and have to read now, there's just part of me, there's this echo in the back of my mind: Am I reading, or am I pretending? Now, the teacher didn't mean to be insulting, and - but she wasn't trained, and she didn't know how to deal with this and didn't know what it was and was doing the best she could.

CONAN: Here's - Sean, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email on exactly this point from James(ph): I have dyslexia and I went to school when they didn't know what it was. They sent me from the special ed class, and I didn't fit in there. So they sent me back to class, where I would get 20 or 30 out of 100 on tests.

I went through school, didn't learn much. I became an artist, but there are still a lot of opportunities missed, as when you write proposals as a visual artist, you still have to write.


CONAN: I now have to hire friends and my daughter to correct my writing, and I must say that the email is perfectly, properly spelled. So he's doing okay.


SCHULTZ: Well, I would say that you - first of all, the fact that you're an artist, and you - that's using - you know, the logic that goes along with this is that we can't do this, so we do this. We can't do this, so we do this. It's a kind of trial and error that lends itself perfectly to the arts - well, I guess that would be science and math too.

But also in the arts you advance intuitively. You can't do this, so you intuit this. And you feel your way through things. If you can do that in the visual world, which is very important, you can also write. So take the time to learn how to write. I mean, you know, Van Gogh's — look at Van Gogh's letters. They're stunningly articulate. And there's no reason why you can't teach yourself how to write proposals.

CONAN: Let's get - I think this is the Fred from Fort Wayne we intended to get on earlier. Fred, are you there?

FRED: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

FRED: Well, when the welfare system in Indiana changed to computers, I was doing in training, filling lots of data entry errors. And the lady came over and she says, OK, type this. And it was a series of numbers, and then type these series of letters. And she says, oh, you're dyslexic. Just pay more attention to how you enter things. And it's like I began a whole series of double checking things, you know? But ultimately, it was a mild dyslexia.


FRED: But I read slow in high school. My father probably had this also, along with another sib. And it explained so many things that otherwise were sort of unexplainable. It carried on, you know, through the welfare system over the years. I retired just as the Indiana system privatized. And now, it's based on a piecework data entry problem or pay rate, and I would've failed. And, you know, I was lucky to get out of the system, you know, while my dyslexia wouldn't hold me back. Anyway, it explained so many things.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Fred. And as you look back on it, has learning about it - and I take it you were a full adult by the time you learned about it.

FRED: I was 43. And as a social worker, I began to look at people who would be, you know, clients, new cases, refugees, whatever, just to take a look at, you know, if I could help them maybe understand how to cut through some of the things. And, yes, it was terribly helpful to learn that it just happens. There's part of your brain that just switches things on wrong. And what you is try to compensate - you're not stupid - and to try to just compensate for it as best as you can and get help.

SCHULTZ: Well, what's good about what you're saying is that you were already educated and sophisticated enough to recognize that you weren't stupid. You were a social worker and of real competence. Others have greater difficulty in reaching that level.

FRED: Well, I think it also - my brother's problem with it and - younger brother. And my mother was so advocative(ph). She really, really went and fought for us, kids. And that is so hard to do sometimes in the face of professionals who won't recognize it. But what I learned was, you know, all kids are special, gifted as well as special needs kids. And if everyone seems - would sort of be patient and to try to find ways around things, I think a lot of it would be better.

SCHULTZ: Well, you know, you used the word mild before, and I'm sure that most neurologists would agree with that, that there are severe cases and mild cases. But on some level, a learning disability is never mild because the struggle involved in just getting to a point of normalcy, where you're operating at a competent level, is such a weight, that it's a weight that becomes a burden. And there's a shame that goes along with it that others have to - that people have to overcome to even allow themselves. You recognized, because of your younger brother, that you were dyslexic. This wasn't a bad thing. This wasn't your fault. But all those out there who struggle to do that, who find such a hard time reaching that level where they can operate in a normal fashion, is really a major issue.

CONAN: Fred, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're glad we've got you finally on. We're talking with Philip Schultz of - his new book is called "My Dyslexia." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Lydia, Lydia from St. Louis.

LYDIA: Hi. I fought dyslexia for really a long time, or being diagnosed with it. My mother is a school teacher, and knew something was very wrong with me very early on and tried to work with me. And I remember growing up that was my biggest battle with her; is she'd want me to sit down and read books, and I was so mad at her that I'd run out of the room. And, you know, and I was a very participant classmate. So, I mean, teachers, a lot of times, didn't realize that I had it, that there was something wrong with me because I was so overly participating and raising my hand. But I was diagnosed since third grade.

And from that moment on, I had somebody helping me with me and, you know, in the classroom, and I was very embarrassed by it, even though I told them I never needed their help, you know, try to ditch them when I could.


SCHULTZ: But then, it wasn't until college when I started to have to read, and I'd have to, you know, get these massive textbooks and write these long papers that I realized that I actually did have an issue. And by then, you know, I kind of realized that I was, you know, with denial or, with being stubborn, you always learn too late, and you learn from your mistakes.

LYDIA: So it really taught me, you know, the road of hard knocks of, you know, sucking it up and trying really, really, really hard to put, you know, sentences together that made sense or trying to write a sentence or, I mean, a paper that made sense from the beginning to all the way to the very, very end of it. So, it was a very, very hard struggle through college.

SCHULTZ: And in grade school, your tutor was with you in class.

LYDIA: They were. And unfortunately...

SCHULTZ: That's tough, isn't it? That's a little - that's, I mean, we're self-conscious enough.

LYDIA: Yeah. No. And they would put all the kids that - because there would be, like, one tutor for three or five kids. And they put us all in the back of the classroom.

SCHULTZ: Yes, yes.

LYDIA: And so, you know - and all the other kids knew about it. But it was funny to me because I was so over - I participated so much in the class that, you know, like I don't know why she needs a tutor. And it was because I had that diagnosis that they stuck one with me anyways, so...

SCHULTZ: And this was how long ago? When was this, when they put you all in the back of the class?

LYDIA: This was probably third grade, so 1990.

SCHULTZ: But, I mean, this is 20 years ago? I mean...

LYDIA: In the '90s.

SCHULTZ: In the '90s. OK, well, I'm talking about the '50s. But even in the '90s, the fact that they would - they're excluding you. It's probably not the best way of dealing with the - because there's a psychological component here that kids are struggling with. And the damage that can be done has to be dealt with, and not by increasing the exclusion.

CONAN: Lydia, thanks very much for the call. We're going to continue our conversation with Philip Schultz about his book "My Dyslexia." Also when we come back, the language of 9/11. Language writer Ben Zimmer joins us to talk about the roots and the evolution of the phrase ground zero. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: We're talking with Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author most recently of a memoir called "My Dyslexia." He's with us from our bureau in New York. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Alyssa (ph), Alyssa from Redwood City in California.

ALYSSA: Hi. I'm been very interested in what you've been saying about dyslexia, and I recently realized that I've been dyslexic. I also felt like I was different. I learned differently. And I had to - I couldn't memorize worth a darn. I had everything in context in order to remember them, which actually helped me later on in my career as I turned to writing in order to make a living. So I actually feel like there really are some benefits that I've gotten even though I was undiagnosed. It actually - you know, I was forced to put everything in context. And as a writer now, you know, that's my forte.

CONAN: What kind of writing do you do, Alyssa?

ALYSSA: I make a living as a technical writer. And I also do other forms of writing - creative writing - on my own just because I love writing so much.

CONAN: It's interesting that you love writing so much. Was reading difficult for you?

ALYSSA: It was difficult. I was always slower, but I - also, I went to a relatively small school, and I was very fortunate that my teachers at the time recognized that I had really good comprehension. So I think that I was not quite as disenfranchised as some people who are dyslexic, even though I was undiagnosed.

CONAN: Philip Schultz?

SCHULTZ: Yeah. Well, you know, it - my son was diagnosed and has grown up knowing that he's dyslexic, and it's made all the difference in the world. So it does make a large difference when you know it. Your attitude towards yourself and your attitude toward others and dyslexia itself, of course, changes. So there's an extra burden in not knowing and being surprised by it. But there's also, I think, a kind of relief that goes along in knowing, finally, that all that trouble, all that mess back there, wasn't really your doing.

And without a doubt, it's an advantage, and it's very important to formulate that and hold on to it, that, yes, your ability as a writer, both technical and creative, emotional, is - probably comes directly out of it. Dyslexics, I've known, have a great compassion for others because they identify with the kind of suffering that goes along with feeling so excluded.

ALYSSA: Yeah. I actually have seen the same kind of thing, and I tend to gravitate towards people who are a little different in some way, you know, as friends and also in the workplace. And, you know, I tend to understand people and want to support them in their differences. And also I want to see, you know, what are the gifts that come along with being slightly different. And I think I've had to emphasize that side of my differences in my life. So I'm not trying to say it was great that I was undiagnosed. I'm just saying that, somehow, I just sort of found my way through, and I felt so fortunate when I found an occupation where I could focus and concentrate on my own for a while in order to work out specific things, and then write about it and get paid for doing that.

SCHULTZ: That's a whole different perspective, isn't it? I mean, it's - you see yourself in a different light and - you know, I think of Yeats, of course, W.B. Yeats, a great, great, great poet, who is clearly dyslexic. And his father was - became so frustrated with him and trying to teach him, expected all kinds of things from him, the fact that he didn't learn how to read and had so much - many difficulties, that it was a very difficult relationship between the two. And he certainly found a way of expressing all those disturbances and difficulties in his wonderful poetry, and then the music.

CONAN: Alyssa, thanks very much for the call.

ALYSSA: Thank you.

CONAN: And you wrote about your son Eli in your book. Through self-knowledge and support he'd received growing up, knowing about his dyslexia - you say he has the distinct advantage of liking himself. He sees other kids as being different from him, very different from the way you grew up. And I just put that in the context of this text message that we got, and it's just numbers. We don't have a name. No one knew. Just labeled lazy. Not apply myself. Had milder form. Meant working very hard to get little. Was slow to finish everything. Hated myself. Stay after to finish. Crying.

SCHULTZ: Well, yes, it's - my son knows he's highly intelligent, and that makes all the difference in the world. That's never been an issue. I think this email suggests that this person struggles with feeling that if you are intelligent - and dyslexics are, or some of them highly intelligent - and if you have that burden of feeling unintelligent that below the line of divide, then that is particularly cumbersome. And - because your intelligence then in your imagination turns it all into something very dark and shameful, and that's the struggle and that's the conflict.

CONAN: Philip Schultz writes about that conflict and about his triumph over it in a way - well, you never triumph completely, but he worked his way through it - in a book called "My Dyslexia." Thanks very much for being with us today. Good luck with the book.

SCHULTZ: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Philip Schultz joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, we're going to be talking about the usages of a phrase we're going to be hearing a lot in the next few days: ground zero.

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