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Death, Sex & Money

WNYC Studios


Podcast Overview

A podcast hosted by Anna Sale about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation. Email the show at deathsexmoney@wnyc.org.

Podcast Episodes

I Killed Someone. Now I Have Three Kids: Updated

I first met Lawrence Bartley three years ago, inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He'd been behind bars for 24 years, after shooting his gun inside a crowded movie theater on Christmas night in 1990 and killing a 15-year-old bystander named Tremain Hall. Lawrence was 17 at the time. 

Lawrence was sentenced to 27 to 30 years to life in prison for his crime, with the possibility of parole. This August, Lawrence will face the parole board for the first time. So we're sharing his story again, and a few updates.

Next week, look out for my conversation with Lawrence's wife, Ronnine. She and Lawrence got married more than a decade ago, and have two sons together. We hear from her about how she's thinking about the possibility of Lawrence coming home—and what she wants for their future together. 

Several years ago, Lawrence participated in a documentary project called Voices from Within. In it, inmates at Sing Sing talk about their crimes and their regrets. Watch for Lawrence around the 7:30 mark.

 

Our Student Loan Secrets, Part 2

Nathan realized he couldn't pay his rent and his monthly student loan payments. Beth* collapsed in tears while doing yoga because she couldn't stop worrying about money. Jordan set a calendar reminder to force herself to finally make her first payment. 

Hundreds of you have shared your stories about student debt with us, especially the mix of frustration and shame you feel about it. But we also heard stories of turning points—when something changed that redefined your relationship with your student loans. 

For Beth, that meant radically changing her spending and allotting close to half of her taxable income toward student loan payments. Nathan converted a van into a mobile apartment to save on rent while he chips away at his $200,000 debt. And Jordan, after first telling me how she's dodged her student loans for two years, finally set up regular monthly payments. 

"It started becoming something that was consequential but inconsequential at the same time. Something that can be controlled and doesn't control me," a listener named Krista said about finally getting help managing her student debt. "That was a huge revelation."

Go to deathsexmoney.org/studentloans for more stories and to see how your debt compares to national statistics and to other Death, Sex & Money listeners.

Our Student Loan Secrets, Part 1

I have blatantly lied to my friends about student loans.

I feel fooled and bamboozled about the American dream.

It’s a stupid system. No one talked about this.

When we asked you to tell us your stories about how student loans are affecting other parts of your life, we were overwhelmed by your responses. You've shared more than a thousand stories in all, and they keep coming. We heard about years of incremental payments and the thrill of getting to a zero balance, but also about delayed weddings, tensions with your parents over your shared debt, and fading hopes of ever buying a home or saving for retirement. 

It makes sense that you have a lot to say about student debt. More Americans are taking out more in student loans and taking a longer time to pay it off. And it's fundamentally reshaping how you think about the value of education and the milestones of adulthood.

"You sort of feel lost and like you totally screwed up somehow because you just couldn't figure it out," a listener named Dena said about struggling to make loan payments ten years after college. "And the rest of the world is making money and paying their bills and there's this subculture of individuals who are book smart and world stupid." 

"I don't know how else to put it except that I almost made it," a listener named Sharif said. He put himself through school with loans to became a chemical engineer, but feels embarrassed by his six-figure debt and never talks about it. "I felt like a total, complete idiot that I put myself in this position." 

For some of you, that embarrassment has become denial. "I just didn’t pay," Jordan Gibbs told me about receiving her first student loan statement. "Like, I just felt like, how can you expect me to start paying you $700 a month? Which is just a crazy number. I can’t even afford to pay rent." 

In part one of this series, hear how our decisions about how to pay for education are having unexpected effects, long after graduation. 

Go to deathsexmoney.org/studentloans for more stories and to see how your debt compares to national statistics and to other Death, Sex & Money listeners. And look out for part two of this series for stories about how some of you stopped feeling stuck and started taking control of your student loans. 

Coming Soon: Our Student Loan Secrets

More Americans are taking on more debt than ever before to pay for higher education: 44 million Americans have $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. But when we asked you to tell us how you feel about your debt, hundreds and hundreds of you told us about the guilt, shame and isolation that surrounds your loans. 

Next week, we'll share your stories about how student loan debt has affected your relationships, careers, families and more. For now, visit deathsexmoney.org/studentloans to join the community there: find out where you fit into the student loan landscape, explore other stories about student loan debt, and share your story if you haven't already. 

Who's Driving Your Uber?

I’ve learned a lot about the Bay Area from Uber drivers since I moved here last fall. Some of them are new arrivals, like me, but others have watched the region change dramatically over the last few years. When I'm stuck in a car with a stranger at the wheel, I've been surprised by how personal conversations can get. 

So last month, producer Katie Bishop and I took our microphones and recording gear along on a bunch of Uber rides all around the Bay Area. The company has been in the news a lot lately, but we set out to learn more about the drivers and what keeps them on the road. We talked about money, competition from other drivers and how they spend their long hours driving and waiting for rides. They also told us about domestic violence, grave plot sales, and the long ripples of the financial crisis. And we heard why one Pakistani driver has decided it's better to not talk to his passengers. 

Hari Kondabolu and His Mom Answer Your Life Questions

When we first met comedian Hari Kondabolu and his mom, Uma, a year ago, we found out that comedy runs in their family. We had such a good time with them that we invited Hari and his hilarious mom to join us on stage again—this time, for a live advice show in The Greene Space. Uma, who immigrated from India to the U.S. as a young woman, and Hari, who was raised in Queens and is now a stand-up comic, sat down with me to answer your questions about everything from money woes to relationship hurdles to pursuing a meaningful life. 

We hear from a listener named Kevin in California, who's unsure about his career path at 30. An anonymous audience member says her parents hate her boyfriend—and wonders what to do. A listener named Judith asks how long parents should financially support their kids. And Katie, who lives in Boston, sent in a message about finding balance between her closeness with her family (physically and emotionally) and a potential dream job that could take her abroad. 

Uma lives far away from her family, and for her that's worked. "I left my country," Uma said. "And if my kids want to do it to fulfill their career, I think I would let them go. I think without happiness you find resentment later." However, Hari says his mom has taken that approach to the extreme. When his career was first taking off, he was traveling for weeks on end. In the middle of it, Uma had a heart attack. "She didn't want me to know," Hari said. "She didn't want there to be any regret."

Watch video of Hari and Uma on stage at The Greene Space below. 

 

We are still hard at work on our episode about student loans. We've got another assignment for you: Send us a picture of the amount that you owe on your student loans. Take a picture of your loan statement, or write out your number in a creative way. Make sure your hands are in the picture (no faces required!) and send it in to deathsexmoney@wnyc.org. 

'Precious' Paid Off Gabourey Sidibe's Gym Membership Debt

Gabourey Sidibe was 24 and working as a phone sex operator when she was cast as the lead in the 2009 film Precious. It was her first acting role. "It had better change my life for the better," she remembers thinking to herself. "That’s what I prayed for." And it did: she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, and has since landed roles in big-budget movies like Tower Heist and television series like American Horror Story, The Big C, and Empire.  

But financial success didn't come right away. As Gabourey writes in her new memoir, "This is Just My Face," she only made about $30,000 from that first role. And, she tells me, it went fast. "Not that I spent it on frivolous things," she says. "What I did with the money was I got out of credit card debt." Gabourey remembers calling a collections agency to pay off several thousand dollars from a Crunch Gym membership that had gone unpaid. "I was like, 'Lisa I'm gonna pay the whole thing off now,'" she laughs. "And she was like, 'Whaaaaat?' And I was like, 'Girl, I got a movie!'"

These days, Gabourey says she's financially stable, and enjoys the attention that's come with her career—mostly. "Before I was an actress nobody said anything about my body," Gabourey says. "It took a while for me to learn that I was never going to out-talent the fact that I should be skinny in, you know, somebody else's eyes." Everyone from directors to fans have told her to do something about her weight—that she should lose it or, at times, that she should gain it back. "People think that I don't care that I am bigger, that I don't notice," she says. "I know. I'm worried." 

That worry fueled her decision to get weight loss surgery last year—something she kept from her family, her manager and her agents. "I had made up my mind and I didn't want space for anybody else's mind to be made up about it," she told me."I wanted my opinion and my comfort and my safety to be the only thing that mattered surrounding the surgery." 

Kevin Bacon Shows Us His Cash

"We all have a different relationship with money," Kevin Bacon told me on stage when I recently interviewed him at The Greene Space in New York. "It's just as complex as death and sex."

One thing I learned about Kevin Bacon's relationship with money in our recent conversation: he likes to carry around a lot of cash. No wallet. A wad—folded up in his pocket. "It's just a weird thing," he said. "I don't leave the house without it."

I asked the actor about how he thinks about money differently after he and his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, famously lost much of their savings in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. "It leaves you with a sick kind of feeling," he said. "However, I think you have to live your life trying to avoid bitterness." At the time, Kyra also had steady TV work, which Kevin says helped them get through their rough financial patch. 

Now, Kevin also has a leading role on a TV series: I Love Dick, Jill Soloway's latest project. Kevin plays Dick—who is an intensely sexual character. We talked about how he approached the role and how he thinks about sex in his own life now that he's almost 60. "Honestly I feel like it's become in some ways even more important to me right now," he told me. "I almost feel like I'm trying to cram as much of it in before it's over for good." 

Watch the video below for my full conversation with Kevin Bacon on stage at The Greene Space. 

Two Wheelchairs and A Baby

When Nikki Villavicencio and Darrell Paulsen found out they were going to have a baby, their first question was: What now? "It was a scared feeling. It’s not that this was not the right thing or the right feeling, but it was, 'What do we do next?'" Darrell told me.

That’s how a lot of people feel when they first become parents. But for Nikki and Darrell, there were complicating factors. For one, neither Darrell nor Nikki has use of their legs. Darrell has cerebral palsy, and Nikki has a rare joint condition called arthogryposis, which means she doesn’t have much use of her arms either. Both rely on home health aides for tasks like bathing, using the toilet and making meals, and spend much of their time in wheelchairs. "I’m in my chair probably a good 18 to 20 hours a day," Darrell said. 

 

(A video from Nikki's YouTube channel)

Before Nikki got pregnant, neither of them believed it was possible for them to conceive. Their parents were told when they were young that it wasn't possible. "I mean, society tells us all the time that people with disabilities either can't have children or shouldn't have children," Nikki said. When they told their family members that Nikki was expecting, some of them were worried—including Darrell's mom. But, Darrell remembers, she found hope in the fact that the couple had a cat. "She used to say, 'Well if we can keep the cat alive for a year, I know you guys can be parents,'" Darrell recalls. "So we've kept the cat alive for a long time. We became parents."

Raising their daughter hasn't been easy. Home health aides aren't supposed to help Nikki and Darrell with tasks related to parenting, whether it's laundry or schlepping a bike across the street. But as their daughter, Alley, has gotten older, she's able to do more for herself—and for her parents. "We always tell her that she doesn’t have to do anything for us...but she will be insistent," Nikki said. "She's super independent." 

Nikki and Darrell's story is a collaboration with Cosmopolitan.com and journalist Kathryn Joyce. Read their piece here.

Newlywed and Paralyzed

"I want to understand if this isolated feeling is normal." That’s what Rachel Swidenbank wrote to me just six weeks after a cycling accident left her husband, Hiroki Takeuchi, paralyzed from the waist down.

The accident happened last summer, less than a month after Rachel and Hiroki got married. They'd also recently bought their first home. Quickly, almost everything in their lives changed. After major surgery and five weeks in the hospital, Hiroki had to learn to navigate the world in a wheelchair. He couldn’t dress himself or use the bathroom without help. Rachel shuttered her company, a tech startup, so that she could spend more time with him.

Physical intimacy is different, too. "We're still in the stage of sort of shock, when it comes to that regard," Hiroki told me. Rachel added, "It's probably the hardest thing to deal with in the relationship." They're not sure how Hiroki's accident will affect their sex life in the long term, and how it will affect their chances at becoming parents. 

Rachel says she's gotten angry at Hiroki about the accident. But there are ways it's strengthened their bond, too. "The emotional connection that we have is so much deeper than it’s ever been before," Rachel told me. And despite all the changes in their relationship, some things have managed to stay the same. Hiroki is still learning how to manage his wheelchair one-handed, but he makes it a point to bring Rachel her morning cup of coffee every day, just as he always has, even if it means spilling a little bit of coffee on the kitchen floor. "It is very bittersweet," Hiroki said, reflecting on the accident, "both survival and loss mixed into one."

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