Death, Sex & Money

Death, Sex & Money

United States

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.

Episodes

Tracy Clayton's 2017 So Far: Therapy, Forts and Auto Bill Pay  

Back in January, I interviewed Tracy Clayton, who writes for Buzzfeed and is the co-host of the podcast Another Round. We talked about the long thread of New Year's resolutions she’d tweeted out for everyone to seeeverything from getting her taxes done by a professional to meeting a chicken

"You know at the top of the year you’ve got, like, hope and energy," Tracy told me when we recently caught up. "It’s like the slate’s being wiped clean, and now you can do anything. New year, new you." More than halfway through 2017, Tracy says she's in "a much different place today" than she was at the top of the year. 

So far this year, Tracy says she's made financial strides by signing up for automatic bill pay and having conversations with her dad about his finances after he's gone. She also "bought some real fucking grown up furniture" for her living roomone of her goals we talked about at the beginning of the year. "It should not have cost as much as it did," Tracy laughed. "But, this was also a really good exercise in investing in me." 

Tracy also tweeted about going back to therapy in June, after not going for several years. "It's hard and it's been kicking my ass," she said. "The things that I'm dealing with are catching up with a lot of the really, really, really big changes that have occurred in the last two years or so that I haven't really thought about or dealt with." She added, "At the top of the year, that wasn't something that I even realized. I do think it's accurate to say that I'm working on accepting things that I can't change, which I've never been good at."

Tracy accomplished her goal of meeting a chicken! Check out her interview with Melissa Harris-Perry's chickens here: 

As Harvey Hits, Looking Back at New Orleans  

We changed our plans for Death, Sex & Money this week as we watched the storm known as Harvey pummel the Gulf Coast. It's made us think about the conversations we had in New Orleans two years ago, for a series about life there around the tenth anniversary of Katrina.

In those episodes, we profiled five people and heard in detail about how their lives were forever changed by a few days of rain, wind, and catastrophic floods. We also heard about their collective trauma of having the home they knew suddenly under water, and about the very long process of rebuilding. You can find that entire series here.

One of the people we interviewed, Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, is heading to Texas this week to volunteer with a medical team. When Katrina hit New Orleans, she didn’t evacuate. Instead she stayed inside New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, where she worked for six days, caring for 18 patients on the 5th floor. There was no power, and it seemed like no one was coming to rescue them. Before they were finally evacuated, Kiersta—who was part of the last group of people to leave—helped clean up the space for when her staff returned. "We didn't want it to look messy," she remembers. "We were naive." 

Charity Hospital never re-opened after they left, but Kiersta returned to New Orleans after being evacuated. After a long rebuilding process, she still lives there today, and is raising her family there. "We just got too weird for any place else other than New Orleans," she laughs. 

We compiled a list of organizations that need your help after Harvey. Find it here: How to Help After Harvey

Katie Couric on Death and Dishonesty  

Katie Couric has lived in the public eye since 1991, when she began co-hosting the Today Show on NBC. While she's built a career on her unflappable on-screen presence, she says that same journalistic rationality served her poorly when crisis hit closer to home. In 1998, her husband, John Paul "Jay" Monahan, died of colon cancer at 42. Katie says her reluctance to accept the inevitable conclusion of his diagnosis is something she regrets. "I really tried to not fall apart in front of Jay, and looking back on it, there's probably a lot of dishonesty about the whole thing," she says. "I think that sort of cockeyed optimism prevented me from ever really saying goodbye."

After Jay's death, Katie parented their daughters alone until 2014, when she married her second husband, John Paul Molner. While her two husbands share a name, Katie says there’s a lot that differentiates the two marriages. "I'm in a different phase of my life," she told me. "The horizon isn't quite as far as it was when I married Jay."

Katie turned 60 years old this year, and says it was more emotionally difficult than she expected. "Half my life is over. It's been a little a little depressing for me," she said. But, she admitted, you’d never know it from looking at her Instagram feed. "You can give people the impression that you're a fairly one-dimensional happy person," she says, "when the truth of the matter is it's much much more complicated than that."

When Grief Looks Like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

In 2013, podcast producer Rachel Ward's husband, Steve, died unexpectedly. She was 32, and he was 35. Being widowed is painful under any circumstances, but Rachel says that she went through an unusual kind of grief and confusion after losing her husband at such a young age. "I felt like I re-experienced adolescence after Steve died," she says. "But I also feel old because I am an aging person. I'm 36 years old. And that's older than a lot of my peers who on paper have an equivalent life position. You know, like just moved to New York City and are single, except they're 26 and I'm 36."

The first time I spoke to Rachel was in 2015, after she wrote a viral Medium post called "I'm Sorry I Didn't Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago." Humor got Rachel through the early days of her grief, and her post was an attempt to put the social awkwardness that comes with widowhood behind her. "I guess I’m kind of hoping this is also sort of a juncture in my life and like a transition point,” Rachel told me. So we held on to the recording of our interview, and checked back in with her this summer to see what happened next.

A lot did happen in Rachel's life in the two years between when we spoke. Rachel changed jobs and moved cities. She says that four years into widowhood, she tries not to think about the grieving process in stages. "I have to remind myself all the time that grief is not linear," she says. But she also says she feels stuck in ways, especially when it comes to dating. "It feels like I have to be like cooked to a certain level and I'm just, like, not," she told me. "But I've also lately been having some really nice realizations about how it's kind of great to be single and not have to like not have to the kind of draggy parts of relationships." 

The Cookie That Ended Jeff Garlin's Sobriety  

For over thirty years, Jeff Garlin has been a film and TV mainstay—writing, producing and starring in comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm (coming back for its ninth season this fall) and The Goldbergs. He's also had a long career in standup comedy. He's so comfortable on stage that he says he often doesn't prepare at all for his sets. But that doesn't mean that Jeff takes his job lightly.

"It's a real important thing, comedy, to make us human and help deal with pain," he says. "Life throws a lot of pain at people. My job is to ease people's pain."

Comedy has helped Jeff deal with his own pain. He had a stroke at 37 and has struggled with his weight for years. He views food as an addiction. After seven years of sobriety—which for Jeff means staying away from sugar and processed foods—Jeff fell off the wagon when he indulged in a celebratory cookie. The occasion? One of his sons was guest starring on The Goldbergs. "Anything with a feeling brings about wanting to eat," Jeff told me. "I always say I eat Pop-Tarts raw because I don't have time to toast them. I need to shove down my feelings." 

I also talked to Jeff about dealing with attention deficit disorder as an adult, slowly losing a parent, having sex in his 50s, and maintaining a fulfilling marriage. Jeff says the key to it all is being present, and tries to stay focused on whatever is in front of him. "When I sit in quiet moments and just stare at the stars, nothing pops in my head of looking back on my life," he says. "I don't like overthinking."

Want to suggest a podcast episode for our Welcome to Adulthood playlist? Go here: deathsexmoney.org/adulthood

Bonus! Anna Talks Interviewing with Jesse Thorn  

"One of the really important traits of an interviewer is to communicate to the person you’re asking questions of that you are sincerely curious," Death, Sex & Money host Anna Sale recently told Jesse Thorn on his new show, The Turnaround. "Because your interview is only going to be as good as the person’s willingness to participate."

This summer, Jesse (who also hosts the radio show/podcast Bullseye) is turning the tables on interviewers and interviewing them about their craft. He's talked with people like Jerry Springer, Errol Morris, Audie Cornish, Marc Maron, and Annawho joined Jesse from her maternity leave last summer to talk about preparing for interviews, asking hard questions, and learning from interviewer heroes. 

My Husband Killed Someone. Now He Might Get Out.  

Ronnine Bartley dated her now-husband Lawrence when they were in middle school. "Even when we were like together at 13 and 14 years old when we had no business being together, we always talked about being married," Ronnine told me. But when Lawrence was 17, he was arrested and convicted of murder. They weren't dating at the time, but they stayed in touch and eventually got back together while he was in prison. And in 2006, they got married. 

But married life hasn't exactly been how Ronnine once imagined it would be. She and Lawrence have never spent more than 72 hours together as a couple. Their two boys were conceived during conjugal visits inside prison walls. And she's had to be the breadwinner and the decision-maker in their family. "Do I consult with [Lawrence]? Absolutely," she told me. "You know, that makes the relationship work. That makes him feel involved, but I'm the boss. Like in my head, I'm the boss!" 

Life for their family will look very different if Lawrence gets paroled. After 27 years in prison, he's going before the parole board for the first time next month. "I try not to talk about it too much," Ronnine says. "I'm not really prepared for if he doesn't get released." But, Ronnine says, even if Lawrence gets out, there are still plenty of challenges that they'll face as Lawrence adjusts to life on the outside and they adjust to life together as a couple. "I guess we're gonna have to go to counseling," she told me. "You know, that's a lot. It's deep." 

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, including a conversation with Tremain Hall's older brother, Chad Hall. 

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 homeand 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 pointswhen 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 againthis 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 boyfriendand 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 Crunch Gym 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."

Alec Baldwin Talks Money, Family, Fame and Cocaine  

"I completely forgot that this is an episode of Death, Sex & Money. We're taping this for your show!"

That's how Alec Baldwin responded after I started our on-stage conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by asking him about money, and how he thinks about accumulating it. It's a topic he addresses head-on in his new memoir, Nevertheless, explaining that the reason he wrote the book was because he got paid for it. While Alec told me he believes "a lot in providence, financially," he says he's often made clear career choices motivated by the paycheck. It's a tactic he says he learned early on, from older actor mentors. "Embrace the commercial," Alec says, "But then when you can, you run off and do these other things for your soul." 

That willingness to say yes has led Alec into a very public existencehosting Saturday Night Live a record-breaking 17 times, engaging in local politics and philanthropy, and maintaining an active social media presence. But being in the spotlight has also led to regular spats with the tabloid press, a cocaine habit in the 1980s, and his very visible custody battle in the 1990ssomething he also covers in his book. When asked what advice he would give to a friend going through a split now, Alec said, "Find a way that you can get into therapy and get into the collaborative divorce. The dignified divorce. You're gonna regret if you don't." 

Alec remarried in 2012 and has had three more children in a little over three years. He says he's embraced the chaos that has come with having little kids back in his life. "My role is to support her," he said of his wife, Hilaria. "I kind of accept that in order to make things easy. As my dad taught me, parenthood is a contest between two people where the dad always wins the bronze medal."

Pleased to Meet You, Nancy  

I first met Kathy Tu and Tobin Low two years ago, when they had an idea for a new podcast. The two friends wanted to make a show that would feature fun, honest and edgy stories and conversations about all things gay. And today, I'm so excited to finally introduce Nancy, their podcast, to all of you!

The story we're sharing with you is from one of their very first episodes. It's about Kathy and her mom, and coming out with the help of Google Translate. 

You can find out more about Nancy at nancypodcast.org. Subscribe today!

Why Rashema Melson Left Georgetown  

I met Rashema Melson in the middle of her sophomore year at Georgetown University. She'd made national headlines the year before when she graduated as valedictorian of her D.C. high school class after spending several years living in a homeless shelter. It was a feat that landed her a scholarship at Georgetown—and saddled her with a lot of pressure. "I can't fail, I mean what would I do?" Rashema said as we talked in her dorm's common room, weeks before finals. "Do I want to believe that I didn't work hard enough or there is something more that I could have done? I just—yeah, no, I can't fail." 

After our conversation, I kept tabs on Rashema through her video blog—which is how I found out that just months after we talked, she left Georgetown. She married a longtime boyfriend in the military, and transferred to a new school in Tennessee to be closer to his base—hundreds of miles away from her old life in Washington D.C. He was in the car with her when I called recently to find out how she was feeling about all of her big life changes. But our call quickly took an unexpected turn, and Rashema told me she's considering a return to Georgetown. "Why run away from what I'm destined to do just because people are showing me that they’re on my side?" she said. "When I had all these people in my corner, I didn't know how to receive that."

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