Using a Mac laptop to record interviews

I’m going to be doing some interviews for my project on The Life Work Blog, and I want to be able to record the conversations, to be able to capture quotes properly.

I have an old mini cassette recorder, but it’s rather awkward to use. It doesn’t even have a time counter on it – a feature I liked on the digital recorder I used when I worked as a newspaper reporter. I would usually take handwritten notes and jot down the recorder’s counter number when some good quotable material came up, so I could easily go back to that portion of the interview later and get the phrasing right.

(Note: I *never* rely strictly on a recorded interview – way too easy to lose it and lose the entire interview. I always take simultaneous notes, either handwritten or on a laptop. Plus, it saves the trouble of having to go back to listen to / transcribe the whole thing.)

I started looking at digital recorders, but soon realized it would be silly to buy another device when the phone in my pocket could do the same thing. I got a cellphone-compatible omnidirectional lavalier mic, started searching smartphone apps to use for recording interviews . . . and got bogged down in a morass of conflicting reviews and crappy apps. I got frustrated and gave up looking.

Time passed, I updated the OS on my MacBook Pro, and I noticed that I now had an “App Store” on my laptop.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “I’m probably going to be typing out these interviews on my laptop – I wonder if I could just record through the laptop, too.”

I set out to search recording apps . . . and got bogged down again in a a morass of conflicting reviews and crappy apps. Until I had a “Duh!” moment and learned that my Mac laptop comes with a recording app built in! Tadaaa! QuickTime Player to the rescue!

“File > New Audio Recording”, click the red circle, et voilà!

The computer’s internal mic worked great with QuickTime, but depending on the background noise level and seating arrangements during the interview, I decided I’d need to use the lavalier mic at times. Alas, I couldn’t get the mic to work. I had a few ports on the side of my computer, and I thought the “line-in audio” port would be the appropriate port to use. I was bringing audio signal into the computer, right?

I finally figured out, and am posting here for others who may be in this predicament, that I needed to use the headphone port for the mic. The line-in port is designed for microphones that have a power source to boost their signal, so no operating power is provided to a device plugged into this port, if I understand correctly. My little lavalier mic does not have a power source, but it does have a TRRS jack (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve – looks like it has three black lines on it), which includes a microphone contact. (See this blog post from the Cable Chick blog for more information about TRRS jacks.)

I had the “System Preferences > Sound (input)” window open when I plugged the lavalier mic into the headphone port, so I could see that the computer automatically sensed what was plugged in and modified the settings appropriately.

Here’s what the “standard” sound input window looks like on my Macbook Pro with OS X Yosemite:

Normal sound input setting for the computer

The “internal microphone – built-in” changed to “external microphone – microphone port” when I plugged in the mic:

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.11.04 AM

The QuickTime Player gives you a choice in a drop-down menu (the triangle next to the red button) between “line in” and “internal microphone.” Leave it on “internal microphone.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 2.44.07 PM

One more thing – when the lavalier mic is plugged into the computer, the computer’s built-in speakers won’t work because it’s sending sound signal to the mic. So, if you want to play back a test recording of your interview subject to make sure things are working, you’ll need to unplug the mic.

Technology problem solved! Now all I need to do is manage to snag interviews with a bunch of busy people.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw


Beautiful prose

Adding to my to-read list: Tracy K. Smith’s memoir “Ordinary Light.”

I read her post on Literary Hub “What Memoir Can Do That Poetry Can’t” and adored some of her phrases.

It is true that death resists the present tense.

But memory does death one better. Ignores the future.

No matter how clear and present these scenes from my life might have felt, I wasn’t looking at film takes or photographs of another time, but rather glimpsing that time through the lens of memory. A lens that is warped, riddled with dark spots, supremely susceptible to error. A lens shaped by habit, guided even only imperceptibly by the desire to see or not to see, a lens that is an extension of, in this case, me. A lens, I decided to admit, that it is as much a character in the story as any of the real people talking and eating and moving their way through scenes—which is why memoir, for all its sincere interest in the truth, is something we read as literature and not history. . . . Memory, making sense of the past by fashioning the past into something that finally makes sense.


Learnin’ lingo

I was patting myself on the back last night for having successfully set up an email address incorporating my domain. I crowed to a computer-savvy friend on social media, and he responded:

Yup, you got your mx records right and that’s the weirdest part to grok. Good job!!


What kind of techno-speak is that?

1961 Martian-speak, it turns out.

According to an entry in Wikipedia:

Grok /ˈɡrɒk/ is a word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where it is defined as follows: Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Urban Dictionary says (emphasis mine):

Taken from the book ‘Stranger in a Strange Land,’ literally meaning ‘to drink’ but taken to mean ‘understanding.’ Often used by programmers and other assorted geeks.

Grok is even in my Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. (Of course I still use a physical dictionary. Don’t you? Such fun to browse!)

v.t. 1. to communicate thoroughly and intuitively. v.i. 2. to communicate sympathetically.

I can’t honestly say that I grok mx records, but I’m glad to have a new word to roll around on my tongue.


Quotes on motivating yourself to write

There’s some good stuff in this Flavorwire article “20 Great Writers on Motivating Yourself To Write, No Matter What.”

The ones that resonate with me at the moment are:

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice. -Octavia Butler


The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you. -Franz Kafka

After having developed some functional writing habits and then promptly broken them up by leaving town for a couple of weeks, I’m currently in a guilt-and-rebuilding phase.

The cultural value of language

Tim Doner’s got an extraordinary hobby of collecting languages. (See his TEDxTeen talk here.)

I could relate to his experience of studying French in school for years but being unable to have a conversation, versus his technique of getting out there to “embarrass himself” and try to speak even if he does not speak correctly.

“Maybe you’re not that articulate or interesting when you talk,” he said, “but the point is, you’re getting out there and you’re getting exposure.”

I’ve often thought that non-native English speakers occasionally create charming, unintentional poetry when they take a chance and try to express an idea for which their vocabulary is lacking.

People really appreciate it when you are making an effort. Nelson Mandela aptly described this phenomenon in a quote Tim used in his talk:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Tim attempts to use news media interest in his language skills to highlight a cause for concern in the world today: the day-by-day loss of languages, and the concomitant loss  of ideas and cultural values that are inaccessible outside of their original contexts.

It reminded me of the book “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World” by Ella Frances Sanders, which contains delightful illustrations and translations of 50 words that express unique concepts in various languages. (If someone wanted to buy me the book, I would not be sad.)

I first heard about the book in an NPR story. I have ever since thought about the fantastical direction a narrative could take when the idea of a mångata is introduced.

Mangata“The roadlike reflection of the moon on the water” – the otherworldliness of the thought just gives me tingles of joy.

And, of course, for the book-addicted, I can’t leave aside tsundoku.

tsundokuIs it a crime to “leave a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books”? If so, I’m certainly guilty of it.

unread book pile

Language. Vocabulary. Words. I relish them. They are delicious.

Bertrand Russell on book clubs

I’m currently reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” and have been finding some quotable material.

A snooty take on reading clubs (oh my!):

The competitive habit of mind easily invades regions to which it does not belong. Take, for example, the question of reading. There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. It has become the thing in America for ladies to read (or seem to read) certain books every month; some read them, some read the first chapter, some read the reviews, but all have these books on their tables. They do not, however, read any old masterpieces. There has never been a month when “Hamlet” or “King Lear” has been selected by the book clubs; there has never been a month when it has been necessary to know about Dante. Consequently the reading that is done is entirely of modern books, which, of course, are seldom and never of masterpieces. This also is an effect of competition, not perhaps wholly bad, since most of the ladies in question, if left to themselves, so far from reading masterpieces, would read books even worse than those selected for them by their literary pastors and masters.”


I’d say Mr. B.R.’s missing a few boats here.

Me, I often read not for pleasure or to show off, but to learn.

I will admit my attempted reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” during my college years was purely out of vanity. I wanted to look cool and intellectual holding a philosophy book.

I’m finding that reading a philosophy book now, with my writer’s hat on, is quite interesting, though. I’m picking up all sorts of nuggets I can link to various theses. If I ever wind up writing a fiction piece, I’m beginning to think I should frame it around a philosopher’s work.

If I can understand them. I *am* a woman. I may have trouble reading a masterpiece.


The sexism we women have had to deal with! (Alas, that we still deal with.)

Russell’s writings from the 1920s-30s sound not far removed from a page of advice from a late 1800s Hearst’s Chicago American, recently posted on social media by a bookshop-owning friend of mine:

If your happiness depends on the common sense and cheerfulness of a mature woman, let her gratify, in your company, the intellectual vanity which distinguishes her.

Give her good books to read, and marvel loudly and enthusiastically that she should understand them. Never mind if you really don’t think she understands them very well.


Bertrand Russell’s solution to writer’s block

I’m currently reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” and have been finding some quotable material.

The following he addresses to those in “literary coteries” suffering from ennui:

“Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate; a king in Borneo, a laborer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy almost all your energies.” . . . I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.


Three eternal truths about living and writing

A friend of mine shared this On Being link recently on social media (thank you, Susan!):

Three Eternal (So Far) Truths about Living and Writing by Parker J. Palmer.

I love this piece! It spoke to me on a number of levels, but the part I really needed to hear was this:

First, you need to figure out whether your chief aim is to write or to publish. Two decades of rejection letters would have shut me down if I hadn’t decided early on that my primary goal was not to be published but to be a writer — a person who, as someone sagely observed, is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes! Once it became clear that I wanted to write even if the publishing fairy never left a contract under my pillow, I could declare success as long as I kept writing. That’s a doable goal, and it’s under my control.

I think part of why I keep getting flustered by people’s constant queries about “how’s the writing coming?” is that there is this expectation hanging out there that I will create A Book.

I think in order to maintain my sanity and enable myself to continue to write without hitting a huge wall made of writer’s blocks, I need to focus on my definition of success as being “a person who writes.”

When a friend asked the other day about my writing, I noted that I was regularly writing blog posts (well, not as regularly as I would like), but, somewhat defensively, said that I hadn’t made progress towards a particular writing goal.

But I am writing! I AM A WRITER! There. I said it.

And perhaps that “getting out there” will lead to point number two in the article – blind luck. Opportunity can’t knock if you don’t have a door. Or something like that.

Still Alice – a book review and personal reflection

SPOILER ALERT: this book review discusses plot points of the book "Still Alice"

SPOILER ALERT: this book review discusses plot points of the book “Still Alice”

I’d been anxious to read “Still Alice” since I learned about it from publicity surrounding the film it inspired. I’d hoped to get some insights from the book, which describes a fictional linguistics professor’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

A member of my family has dementia, you see.

It’s heartbreaking and stomach-churning – both the book and my family’s reality.

Lisa Genova, who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Harvard and knows intimately the neural processes of which she writes, totally nailed the atmosphere of confusion and frustration and anger and sadness and fear that infuses the lives of people with dementia, and those who care for them.

In many aspects, “Still Alice” was all too familiar: the unpredictable swings between functionality and impairment, the anxiety and repeated questions about dates/times/appointments, the snappishness or withdrawal that happens when social interactions are too fast for a damaged brain to process.

Neurology appointments and diagnosis

I recognized that intense focus Alice put into the neurology exams she was given, the desperate desire to “pass.” I was never present at the neuro exams my family member took, but they would tell me with pride days later in a phone conversation the words they were asked to remember at their appointment. Those random words were a talisman – proof that all was still well.

But it wasn’t.

Those in-office memory tests always seemed to lag behind day-to-day reality. Caretakers were aware of my family member’s cognitive decline well before the formal diagnosis. I wonder if this was in part due to the physicians’ discomfort at making the diagnosis.

I was reminded of a recent piece a doctor wrote for NPR “When A Patient Says ‘Everything’s Fine,’ A Doctor Should Be Wary”:

In retrospect, I realize that my patient was adroit at masking his dementia. He was still capable of small talk. Since I didn’t probe very hard, I wasn’t going to find out the degree of memory loss that he’d already suffered. … Labeling patients with Alzheimer’s can be devastating. It’s telling them that they have an incurable, progressive illness that won’t only destroy their mind but in all likelihood ravage the lives of their caregivers as well.

Loss of independence in health/safety decisions

In the book, Alice’s neurologist is very keen on getting her family’s perspective on how well Alice is functioning in her daily life. Much to her humiliation, the neurologist says, “You may not be the most reliable source of what’s been going on.”

I was not there for most of the doctor appointments, but it seemed like there was a constant tension between my family member and the caretakers who would accompany them to appointments. My family member would say something that was blatantly untrue, and the caretaker would have to correct that statement, in front of them.

My family member was, of course, distressed about all this. It could have been them sitting there, in Alice’s place in a scene in her neurologist’s office, when the doctor says that he wants Alice’s husband to accompany her if she goes out for a run, because the damage to her brain renders her unable to go out safely by herself. Alice feels persecuted by them having conversations about her, in front of her, and by this truncation of her freedom for her safety – “They were ganging up on her.”

This feeling of being “ganged up on” is a huge source of conflict between a person with dementia and the people who care for them. Dementia can utterly destroy a relationship, both because the person with dementia slowly dissolves away from being the “self” they have always been, thus removing the foundations of relationships they have built (the shakier the foundations were to begin with, the faster the relationships collapse), and because of clashes between a person’s desire for independence and the need to put limits on that independence for safety’s sake.

Which is worse – fighting with a person to get them to use a walker when their sense of balance fails and they are unwilling/unable to accept their new “disabled” status, or letting them have the freedom to leave the walker behind and then watching them crash to the ground and bleed profusely from a head wound?


One beef I have with “Still Alice” is that it sidesteps a hugely important and emotionally-charged issue in the lives of many families dealing with dementia: driving.

Conveniently, Alice lives close to where she works, on a college campus where walking is a well-accepted form of transportation. She is not depicted driving in the book, before or after her diagnosis. When she goes out for a walk by herself, she might be endangering herself, but she is not necessarily putting the lives of other people at risk. Getting behind the wheel of a car changes that calculus.

I was upset when my family member was given a formal diagnosis of dementia without any followups on the practical implications of that diagnosis on daily activities like driving. For months, caregivers had been fighting with my family member over access to car keys. With the unpredictable nature of the cognitive impairment and the frequent inability to focus on more than one task at a time, let alone the increasing physical impairments, driving just did not seem safe. And the family member seemed unable to judge the extent of their impairment from one moment to the next. “I’ve not had an accident,” they said. I always mentally filled in the word “yet.”

Lane positioning was becoming problematic, “curb checks” more frequent. Once, the police were called late at night when the family member failed to return home hours after running an errand – their GPS device had failed, and they had gotten utterly lost. Another time, the family member called caretakers because they were lost, hours away from home, and unable to navigate back even with GPS.

A side note on technology: it can greatly help a person with dementia continue to function independently – until it can’t. In the book, Alice uses her Blackberry to maintain her grip on her sense of time, until she accidentally destroys the device. My family member has been relying on a smartphone to remind them when to take their meds and to navigate to and from home while driving. Unfortunately, as the dementia has progressed, they are losing the ability to use the device. They often wind up completely messing up the medication reminder schedule when, say, trying to change the alarm sound, or they forget how to charge the device, or lose it altogether.

Ultimately, a wrangled appointment with an occupational therapist resulted in a recommendation to revoke driving privileges based on cognitive deficits. My family member says they will appeal this decision. I suspect driving will continue to be a source of anger and frustration for as long as my family member is able to remember the freedom and habit of driving.

Confused thinking, isolation, boredom

“Still Alice” does an exceptional job of describing the confused thinking of a person with dementia. I found my own thinking muddled when I would come up for air while reading this book.

The strange thing about being around a person with dementia is that their skewed perception of reality can rub off on you after awhile. You can begin to doubt your own sanity and need to turn to others for a reality check. A recent post on the Iowa Book Facebook page, inspired by the death of writer Terry Pratchett from Alzheimer’s disease, mentioned this feeling:

Driving over to my dad’s house in western Illinois on Saturday morning, the snow had melted to highlight the branches and twigs littering his front yard, a scandal in his coiffed suburban neighborhood. Inside, my ninety-year-old father greeted me with the news, delivered in an enthusiastic tone, that there were “Too many birds flying in the house.” How many? “Oh, two, maybe three.” A moment later, he added a squirrel. . . . I busied myself before my eldest brother could arrive to rescue me, to verify that what I was hearing was madness, providing a reality check to what seemed to be Wonderland.

A word in the preceding passage – “scandal” – speaks volumes, too. Mental health problems, dementia included, are not well accepted in our society. A very telling passage from “Still Alice”:

And while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be cast out. Even the well-intentioned and educated tended to keep a fearful distance from the mentally ill. She didn’t want to become someone people avoided and feared.

Alice loses her ability to work, and she loses her professional social networks and identity. As her disease progresses, she begins to lose the ability to keep herself occupied. She can no longer read or watch a movie because she can’t follow a plot anymore.

She sat in her living room armchair and tried to think of what to do. Nothing meaningful enough came to her. She tried to imagine tomorrow, next week, the coming winter. Nothing meaningful enough came to her. She felt bored, ignored, and alienated in her living room armchair.

This same thing is happening to my family member. They can no longer keep themselves occupied because they can no longer do the things they used to do. Even watching TV is difficult because they can’t always remember how to work the controls.

They call me because they are bored, but sustaining a phone conversation with them is difficult because they have little they can contribute to a conversation anymore. They often seem to expect caretakers to drop everything to come rescue them from their boredom.

I tried to search online for some solutions for dementia-related boredom, but many of the suggested activities assume the caretaker can be right there, all the time, to assist and suggest and redirect. This hardly seems fair to ask of a person. It’s exhausting, and impossible when the caretaker has other work and family responsibilities to attend to.

Fixing the body, but not the mind

“Still Alice” adroitly walks the reader through dementia’s effects and implications. It’s an important book to read, because the number of people living with dementia will only increase. Modern medicine has gotten really good at patch-fixing the human body to keep it going, but damage to the mind remains unrepairable.

My family member’s health has prompted me to do a lot of reading, in addition to “Still Alice.”

Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler describes the author’s experience of dealing with the ends of her parents’ lives, and the thorny issues raised when her father is fitted with a pacemaker that winds up keeping his body going long after his mind has deteriorated.

Being Mortal” by surgeon Atul Gawande outlines the struggles he faces when treating patients with incurable illnesses, and how the American medical system is failing in its focus on technology and treatments over the well-being of the patient as a whole.

These are both excellent, thought-provoking books that came to mind numerous times while I was reading “Still Alice.” There was one passage in particular that reflected a major point from “Being Mortal” –  that patients should be asked what really matters to them when setting health care goals.

Alice evaluates her life, to determine what is most important for her to accomplish in her remaining time. To her surprise, she leaves her career behind entirely. Most of what she wants involves family – holding a grandbaby, seeing a child succeed in a career, seeing another child fall in love, spending a year on sabbatical with her husband.

What bothered me about her goals is that they involved actions by other people. Her definition of happiness could only be fulfilled through others.

A highly emotional scene in the book is one in which Alice and her husband discuss a career opportunity for John, which would derail her plans for a sabbatical to spend time with him.

Alice: “I can’t do this anymore! Please! I can’t keep holding on without you! You can take the year off. If you wanted to, you could. I need you to.”

John: “I don’t think I can do it, Alice. I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can take being home for a whole year, just sitting and watching what this disease is stealing from you. I can’t take watching you not knowing how to get dressed and not knowing how to work the television. If I’m in lab, I don’t have to watch you sticking Post-it notes on all the cabinets and doors. I can’t just stay home and watch you get worse. It kills me.”

I’m afraid of what the future will bring – for my family member, for the caretakers, for me, and for our relationships. I can’t fix this. Can’t make things better. Dementia is a horror in which I see no happy endings.

They all have a story

I very much agreed with this sentiment by Valerie Cabrera, posted today on The Loft Literary Center’s “The Writers Block” blog:

The people I talk to are usually normal moms, high school seniors, kids who love sports, gardening grandmothers, restaurant managers, etc. They all lead pretty normal day-to-day lives. And they all have a story. 

I found this to be true when I was working as a newspaper reporter. My favorite type of assignment was a profile – everyone has something fascinating to share. The trick is to find your way to it.

The key is to develop trust.

You know that personality-quiz-type question, “If you could develop a superpower, what would it be?”

I’d like to have the power to win instant trust from everyone I met. I’m sure that has something to do with my need to be liked, but, boy, what a boon that would be for an interviewer!

A key to developing trust is to check your ego at the door and listen to a person. Really listen. With empathy. Without judgment.

It’s one of the skills I’ll need to make my interview project at The Life Work Blog come alive.