In May, I set up something I call “office hours.” I put out a call to talk to readers on the phone about just about anything, one-on-one, for about 10 to 15 minutes each. So far, more than 2,000 people have submitted a bid to chat (see the form below to send in yours). There’s only one of me, and I set aside only about four to six hours a week for the calls, so it’s fair to say I’ll never get to all of my suitors. But over the last several weeks, I have spoken to nearly 60 readers about a vast range of topics — and I’ll keep talking to more, because I haven’t had this much fun on the phone since the summer after 11th grade.
The conversations have been surprising, mind-expanding, sometimes infuriating, sometimes inspiring, and never boring. They’ve taken me deep into subjects and dilemmas I might not have considered otherwise — creating, on the whole, something like an inspiration factory for future columns, which honestly feels a little like cheating.
In no particular order, here’s a sample of a few of the calls I’ve had: I met a food-industry consultant annoyed about how the natural-food movement has been swallowed whole by capitalism. I spoke to a Louisianian who wondered whether it’s possible to get Americans to care, given everything else, about the tragic and terrifying loss of coastal wetlands. An expert in the digital advertising business made the case for how Donald Trump used Facebook’s ad platform to precisely engineer the vote in 2016, and how he might do so again. A computer scientist with autism wondered what we’d do about people with mental illnesses when we figure out a way to upload our brains to computers — should we upload the “flaws,” too?
There was a lot of intra-lefty discontent: A fiercely progressive Jewish reader who is a passionate defender of Israel complained that she felt unwelcome among social justice movements on the left. An anti-abortion Democrat couldn’t figure out whom to vote for in 2020. And, in an argument that drove me nutty with quiet rage, a lesbian insisted to me that trans women were pilfering her community for the betterment of the patriarchy.
Some of the best calls were less provocative than they were straightforwardly surprising. I was gobsmacked by a call from Cecelia Temple, a reader from Chicago who has the misfortune to know two people who recently suffered sudden cardiac arrest — a condition, different from a heart attack, that is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and can occur without warning in people with no history of heart trouble.