During high school, I had a Sunday night ritual. Come 7 P.M., I would turn on the radio and hear my favorite program: The Moth Radio Hour. I spent every week looking forward to this hour-long respite, this haven of stories. And although I remember many charming characters, pithy punch lines, and intense images, there is one particular piece that has stuck with me: “Perfect Moments” told by Brian Finkelstein [17:08]. Finkelstein’s story is possessing—a thoughtful exploration of the delicate boundary between life and death, comedy and tragedy.
Despite his morbid subject matter, Finkelstein will make you laugh (in the middle of a suicide attempt, no less) by delivering idiosyncratic details with a constant, almost melodic cadence. Highlighting particular, seemingly unrelated facts, he weaves an incredibly vivid picture while also giving us time to process and breathe in between the dramatic events and feelings they create. What at first seem like digressions actually help Finkelstein create dependable rhythm and introduce details that come to tie the story together, keeping us with him the whole way through.
The story’s plot itself is fairly simple; Finkelstein explains both his training and experience as a counselor at the Humanitarian Suicide Hotline in New York--a world so intense that enduring six months is an impressive feat. Finkelstein volunteered there for four years.
And yet, unlike many of Finkelstein’s fellow volunteers, we are never overwhelmed by the darkness the place necessarily contains. Finkelstein consistently leavens the story by giving us strategically placed moments of respite, often in the form of idiosyncratic details. For example, when introducing his shift partner (Adam) in the latter half of the show, Finkelstein explains, “he’s a communist.” Parenthetically, he adds, that this is “not relevant to the story, just a little detail; you’re welcome.” Such instances of spontaneous levity give us a place to breathe—a much-needed chance to step outside a world defined by depression and death. But they also come to serve the theme of story. This throwaway comment about communism later serves as a touchstone. During a phone conversation with a young (and actively suicidal) college student, Finkelstein needs Adam to call poison control. Even as we are swept away by the horror of the situation, Finkelsteins throws a pencil at Adam, again calling him “the communist,” reminding us that we can access humor, even in the hardest of times.
Throughout the piece, Finkelstein swings from snarky satire to honest reflection without missing a beat. These transitions could easily be jarring and disorienting, but Finkelstein takes care to ensure that this is not so. His rhythmic cadence connects the story to itself as it marches melodiously onward to its poignant end. One minute, we’re in a class full of clowns, and the next we’re beneath the moon, listening to him explain that “there’s these moments of beauty like moons and oceans, and then there’s moments of horror and then it’s good again and then it’s horrible and kicks you in the face and then it’s good again and then it’s horrible in a pig sty because that’s what life is, but then, for a moment, it’s good, and for me that’s enough.” The steady repetition of words keeps us rapt, even when we just as quickly revert to the lighthearted, sacrilegious humor and bizarre observations with which we began. Finkelstein’s steady cadence holds the juxtaposition together, so that, as listeners, we stay present in the story.
At the suicide hotline, Finkelstein is always negotiating the precipice between life and death. This piece elegantly captures how he handles it by using the very same skills which help him create this beautiful narrative: his ability to focus, to ground himself in a moment, and still maintain the perspective necessary to recognize the rhythm of life. When Finkelstein is at his darkest, immediate sensory detail pulls him back from the edge. By bringing humor to his most difficult experiences, he seamlessly melds pain and sorrow, beauty and joy. As does life, this story contains a little bit of everything—a collection of vivid snapshots—and somehow retains its own logical rhythm. Finkelstein speaks with fluidity, tempo, and melody, ensuring that his ideas flow as seamlessly as his steady tone. Once the beat of this story crawls inside you, it is certain to stay.
The Moth Radio Hour