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#NPRreads: Rube Goldberg Machine's Dark Origins And Spalding Gray's Last Days

#NPRreads is a new feature we're testing out on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers throughout our newsroom will share pieces that have kept them reading. They'll share tidbits on Twitter using the #NPRreads hashtag, and on occasion we'll share a longer take here on the blog.

This week, we bring you four reads:

From Ina Jaffe, a correspondent on NPR's National Desk:

There would be no This American Life or any of the other ubiquitous storytelling shows on public radio without the late actor Spalding Gray. He virtually invented the autobiographical monologue as a theater form. His work was often gasp-for-air funny, which it turns out, masked a long struggle with depression. In this New Yorker piece, neurologist Oliver Sacks speculates that a head injury from a car accident was instrumental in Gray's 2004 suicide. An excerpt:

"Now, two years after the accident, on his first visit to us, Spalding entered the consulting room slowly, carefully lifting his braced right foot. Once he was seated, I was struck by his lack of spontaneous movement or speech, his immobility and lack of facial expression. He did not initiate any conversation, and responded to my questions with very brief, often single-word, answers. My first thought, and Orrin's [Devinsky], was that this was not simply depression, or even a reaction to the stress and the surgeries of the past two years—to my eye, it clearly looked as if Spalding had neurological problems as well."

From Kenya Young, an editor on NPR's Morning Edition:

I've been following Doyin Richards at daddydoinwork.com for over a year now. His posts are great, but every once in a while he has a true gem — this was one of them. Richards often writes about this journey as a stay-at-home dad and parenting from the male perspective. As a mom of two sons, it was refreshing to hear the influence his mom had on him in being a dad:

"Do you want to know the quickest way to piss off my mom? Tell her you're going to do something and don't follow through. After being raised in her household, I'm now the same way, and I'm raising my kids to be accountable. Granted, they're too young to grasp this concept completely, but I keep every promise I make to them. If I tell my daughter that we'll watch Frozen together at 7:00 p.m. and the basketball game I was enjoying goes into overtime, I'll just have to 'let it go' and watch Elsa freeze up her damn kingdom for the 13,035th time."

From Steve Mullis, a producer for NPR.org:

I've been fascinated by those overcomplicated machines built to carry out a simple task, aka Rube Goldberg machines, ever since playing the game Mouse Trap as a kid. Little did I know the often comical machines, named after the cartoonist and engineer who first created them, have a slightly darker origin, as The Verge writes in a recent feature centered around a modern contest of Rube Goldberg creators:

"The surrealism of Goldberg's cartoon inventions — in one, someone has sent Professor Butts a mail bomb, which he uses to build a device that will blow up inflatable armbands to go swimming — is meant to entertain, but it also reveals a dark skepticism of the era in which they were made. The machines were symbols, Goldberg wrote, of "man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results." The early 20th century was a time of great technological upheaval — inventions of unprecedented complexity were introduced to the world as novelties and quickly became ubiquitous."

From Tom Dreisbach, a producer for Weekend All Things Considered:

NPR's Kelly McEvers and I are reporting on the outbreak of HIV in Southern Indiana, and one town, Austin, that has been hit especially hard. The outbreak is linked to the abuse of the prescription painkiller Opana, which people here have been mixing with water and injecting, sometimes sharing needles in the process. As the Times of Northwest Indiana reported, many people live in poverty here and lack transportation, so drug treatment can be difficult to reach:

"Prater said, like most addicts in Austin, she used to abuse Oxycontin, another prescription opiate, but switched to Opana because of its more intense high (which also means the withdrawal is that much more severe). She said she wants to clean up her act; she just doesn't have the means, nor does Austin. The nearest drug treatment center is more than 30 miles away."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe
Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
Kenya Young
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.