Caverly MORGAN: A student of mine came to speak at a school board meeting. I didn’t know what he was going to say, but I’ve never forgotten it. He said, “Mindful studies gave me the tools so I could save my life.” So these are the tools that give teens a very concrete way to move through the world with less suffering, with a deeper sense of knowing who they are and the capacity to deal with the inner critic, the voice that most of us don’t ever even question.
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Steven LEVITT: I’m so excited to talk today with Caverly Morgan. She’s quite different than the typical guest I have in this show in that she’s devoted her life to spirituality. She spent eight years living in complete silence in a Zen monastery. And since she left the monastery, she’s done many interesting things. But the one that really caught my attention is a program called Peace in Schools that teaches mindfulness skills to high school students. And I had a chance to observe that program firsthand. And I was so impressed that I immediately signed up to be a donor.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: Now, I’ve only talked with Caverly a few times at length, but I have to say every time I walked away from the conversation, I felt changed; I felt improved; I felt happy. So I really hope that today’s conversation will be in that same spirit.
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Steve LEVITT: I’m not quite sure, Caverly, how to introduce you, so I just want to start with a story I’ve heard that I think says a lot about who you are. You were leading a retreat and a mosquito was buzzing around you and you waved your hand, shooing the mosquito away. But it was persistent and it kept on hovering around you. And this went on apparently for about 30 seconds.
And then finally, you just said, “Oh well, let’s get this over with.” And you stood still and the mosquito landed on your cheek and it took a healthy dose of your blood until it finally was satisfied and it flew away. And you went back to your lecture without any comment. Do you understand how unusual that behavior is?
MORGAN: Well, I’ve not even recalled that experience until you said it. And I do recognize that what’s unusual in our world today is for us to have such an interest in inquiry.
LEVITT: So when you say inquiry, I think most people wouldn’t think of a mosquito sucking their blood as inquiry.
MORGAN: Well, when we inquire deeply into the nature of discomfort, we’re freed to have a different relationship with what is. We forget to even ask, “What is the nature of this discomfort?” So what interests me is the practice that gives us the space to pause and inquire into whether this discomfort is actually just a series of thoughts that doesn’t even get questioned.
LEVITT: Do you sometimes kill mosquitoes?
MORGAN: You know, I actually have to confess that I don’t.
LEVITT: You never do?
MORGAN: I never do. And I think that it’s not because I am religious about that, but the taste for causing harm has actually left me at this point.
LEVITT: Great. Let’s start at the beginning. I’m curious, the kind of life path that leads you to where you are, which is clearly a very different place than where most people are, were there any hints in your early childhood that you would follow this path of love and doing no harm? Were you an unusual kid?
MORGAN: I wasn’t at all. I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia in an upper middle class family. My mother took us to church only when the University of Virginia students were in session because she thought the boys were so cute in bow ties. So this was not a deep spiritual emergence of a childhood. That said, I do have some specific memories of watching people be moved by something that they would call, “larger than themselves.”
LEVITT: Can you give me an example of the bigger-than-themselves experiences that moved you as a child?
MORGAN: I just remember this moment when there was a man over in one of the pews nearby and I remember watching him — now I would call it surrender — but I watched him be freed from that internal narrative that my life is about “I, me, mine.” And that happened through him releasing his arms into the air and what was being released was this sense of isolation that comes from being identified with a narrative that keeps this illusion of “I am the mask I wear in the world” in place. And that certainly has been a thread throughout my life. I wasn’t versed in world religions. I didn’t grow up knowing Buddhists. And I actually didn’t feel particularly drawn to a religion.
LEVITT: What got you started on a spiritual path?
MORGAN: A friend of mine gave me a book called That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You To Seek. And I actually had never read anything about Zen Buddhism and I can’t say that enough — I wasn’t drawn to learning more about religions per se. I read this book, however, and then I was on a mailing list, so I ended up on retreat. And I talked two girlfriends into going on the Zen retreat. And I had no idea what I was getting into. I mean, we had beer in the car because I thought, “We’ll get to unwind a little bit on this retreat.” And we were playing music and I had missed the fine print that it was a silent environment.
And we show up, and a woman comes over and bows to us and says, “The retreat has actually begun, but I’ll go ask the teacher whether it’s O.K. for you to enter the group.” And then she bowed again and left and I turned to my girlfriends and I said, “Oh, man, they’re bowing and shit here. We’re out of here.” I just wanted nothing to do with any environment where someone I didn’t know was going to bow to me.
LEVITT: I don’t know what you mean when you say it’s a silent environment. So what does that even mean?
MORGAN: I didn’t know, myself, and I think that’s why I was in such a state of shock when I arrived. When I talk about a silent retreat, I mean it very literally. There not only was no talking, there wasn’t eye contact. So meals are shared. But we were facing away from each other.
LEVITT: How long was that retreat?
MORGAN: That silent retreat was a week. But we had only taken enough time off work to attend four days of it. And I think it was probably the longest four days of my life.
LEVITT: So for four days, you don’t make eye contact. You don’t talk. And did that change you? Did an epiphany hit you then or what? What happened?
MORGAN: Yeah. It changed me deeply. I mean, first of all, I experienced tremendous resistance. The inner dialogue about how crazy this was was so loud, and I still look back in amazement that I didn’t fall for that narrative. And I think the reason why is the practice that I was being dropped into, in the deep end, was a practice that invites you to pay attention to the narrative rather than to believe the narrative.
So for the first time, I had some distance. I heard this voice. It’s the same voice that was creating panic attacks during a test in high school. It’s the same voice of, “You’re going to fail. You don’t know what you’re doing. Your life is going to be a shambles.” It’s that same voice at this retreat. It was, “These people are crazy. What are they doing here?” “I don’t have the discipline for this. I can’t handle this.”
But it was the first time I was being given a tool — I now call these tools contemplative technologies — that allowed me to see I am not this voice. I’m not this narrative. This narrative is something that I’m aware of. And it was a radical perspective-opener for me.
LEVITT: So you left the silent retreat after four days. And I presume you drove home with your two girlfriends.
MORGAN: Yeah. Who don’t speak to me anymore, by the way.
LEVITT: O.K. And what was that conversation like? What was their experience?
MORGAN: I mean, I was on fire. They were a little bit more in the camp of, “that was a trippy experience.” But I felt awakened. I didn’t know how long, but I knew I was going to be going on another retreat.
LEVITT: And it took, I believe, three years after the first retreat, but you ended up making your way to a monastery in northern California where you stayed for eight years. Yes?
MORGAN: Being on retreat became a huge passion. I found myself organizing what I was doing in my life around having the time off to be able to go on as many retreats as possible. And at one point the teacher said, “Clearly, this is something you’re deeply called to. You know, you can come and train at the monastery.” And I remember saying to her, “As long as that doesn’t make me a monk.”
I had been in a long-term relationship with a truly wonderful man that everyone around me, including him, assumed we were heading towards marriage. And I couldn’t reconcile a narrative in which I would move too deeply into a practice that requested a lot of letting go with the vision of what I thought my life was supposed to be.
LEVITT: And so you ended up signing up for six months in the Zen monastery. And there must have been a lot of letting go to do that. Did they ask you to shed all your possessions and your relationships?
MORGAN: Because I was very adamant that I was not going to become a monk, I had my things in storage. I wasn’t so quick to let go. I didn’t actually cut all ties. I did have a bi-weekly phone call with my mother, who I’m very close to, but I had no cell phone. I really surrendered to this approach of training for six months.
LEVITT: Do they cut off all your hair when you get there, or is that —?
MORGAN: I trained in a place where that actually wasn’t a requirement. Now, I did choose at one point in time to shave my head. And that was motivated by my own inquiry around: who am I without my hair?
LEVITT: Honestly, I know very little about Zen. Are you able to describe Zen and its beliefs in a simple way that even somebody like me would be able to understand it?
MORGAN: Yes. The beautiful thing about Zen is that the best expression of Zen would probably be silence. There is, of course, religious form around Zen. But I actually ended up training in a monastery where there wasn’t a lot of form. What that did is it allowed what I felt really was the heart of Zen, in my experience, to shine forth, and that truly can be boiled down to the word “presence.”
LEVITT: And what does “presence” mean?
MORGAN: So when the mind is busy with all of this conversation about the horrible things that are going to happen in the future, when the mind is fixed on that conversation, we’re not here. We’re not present. And when the mind is fixed on the regrets about what happened yesterday and last week, we’re not here.
You can actually place your attention where you want it to be. And again, the result of that is empowerment. So we start by getting present. And then as we get present, something opens, we get to explore: what is presence? What’s always the backdrop of our experience, even if the mind is very busy? What is the nature of our own being, even if the mind is focusing on regret or the past?
LEVITT: I had an interesting experience with my teenage kids when I talked to them about that voice inside their head. And what was interesting is that they weren’t even really aware that there was a voice. They acknowledged it once I brought it up. But if I had said to them, “Is there chatter going on all the time in your head?” I don’t think they even were aware enough to understand that chatter. I think there’s such a disconnect between our existence. Because people have never known anything except the chatter, they don’t even understand it as chatter.
MORGAN: I couldn’t agree more. When I was doing this small after-school program here in Portland, one of the things that I would do in those demonstrations is I would drop that phrase, “You are not your thoughts.” And it was profound. The stillness and the silence. And this notion of, “Well then, who the hell am I?”
LEVITT: So is there a goal? When you’re a Zen monk, are you striving towards a goal or is that the wrong way to think about it?
MORGAN: In the monastery where I trained, there would have been a lot of conversation about “there is no goal.” But I did see it as a goal to “get better” at having my attention be in the present moment rather than focused on the future or focused on the past.
LEVITT: So tell me about a day in the monastery.
MORGAN: The monastic way was extremely structured. There really wasn’t “downtime.” Everything we were doing throughout the day, we were doing from the perspective that whatever it was, it was an opportunity to practice.
LEVITT: So specifically, would you get up at 5:00 a.m.? I mean, could you just walk me through the day?
MORGAN: It wasn’t quite as early as five on an average day, but it was dark and you’d have a sitting meditation and then you’d have your breakfast and then you’d move into another seated meditation and then you’d have working meditation until lunch. I ended up training at this monastery for eight years and I trained alongside people that I never chatted with.
There’s one gentleman that I trained with, and he trained there 18 years. And we just had our first “heart-to-heart, in a very personal way, sharing all of our experience” conversation about a year ago, because now he’s left the monastery. So it was an extreme environment and it was an environment that I now see as not required in order to have a life of presence. And I really just want to underline that because I think so few people would hear this and be drawn to go have this experience.
LEVITT: So there would be many days when you literally would not speak?
MORGAN: Many, many, many, many, many.
LEVITT: And would you talk to yourself when you got back to your room? To hear your own voice, or no?
MORGAN: Often by the end of the day, I didn’t necessarily feel compelled to talk to myself because I had gotten so present all day long to how much I talked to myself.
LEVITT: After so many years in the monastery, what made you leave?
MORGAN: That’s actually an incredibly involved answer. But the short version is that my teacher saw that it was time for me to go. I’d been there eight years and there was something that I couldn’t reconcile in the monastic structure. It had served me until it no longer served me. And I couldn’t bring myself to leave, but my teacher saw that there’s something that I wasn’t going to be able to get from within the gates. So I was asked to leave.
And it was the best thing that could have happened. In particular, what I was required to reconcile was, “O.K., you either go to a place, very dedicated to spiritual practice, remove yourself from the world, and then you can have enlightenment and peace. Or you live this worldly life that is just bound to all of this suffering.” So I was thrown into a deep reconciliation process.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with educator, former zen monk, and founder of the organization Peace in Schools, Caverly Morgan. They’ll return after this short break.
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LEVITT: So you leave the monastery. And what is the idea for bringing mindfulness into the public schools? How does that germinate?
MORGAN: I was doing a workshop for a group of adults. And a woman approached me at the end of the workshop day and she said, “My high school students have to learn what you just showed me.” So I went in as a volunteer guest teacher, and this is the beauty of me being naive to school systems and structures, because I just went in and basically did the same workshop about hearing that voice in your head. And teens were on fire. They were like sponges.
For the kid in the class that thinks of themselves as the class outcast to realize that they have the exact same voice as the popular cheerleader, and for teens to share an experience that is normally invisible was just profound. And I actually saw that teens were more ready to be unburdened from the conditioning that they had been downloading, that they’re still in the process of downloading. People that are our age, we’re crusty at this point in time. Our conditioning was more solidified. We’ve got to really peel it back in some cases. And these teens weren’t quick to defend their conditioning.
LEVITT: People who’ve never tried to change public education probably have no idea how difficult and slow and frustrating the process can be. What I find really amazing about this whole story is that I have tried on five, 10 different occasions to make change in the public schools and not once has anything organic ever happened. I mean, it’s been nothing but fighting and pushback and disappointment and failure. But somehow or another, you manage to get what the program came to be called, Peace in Schools, a foothold. Can you describe that process?
MORGAN: Yes, it’s been beautifully organic. I wasn’t trying to do something really radical, but I knew that mindfulness as a short-term, quick intervention wasn’t going to be the answer. So I said, “I’ve got to be during the school day. I can’t be just like a one-off after school thing where I’m not reaching the kids who have jobs or play soccer.” The principal at Wilson High School, he said, “If you get 25 teens to say they want to take this class, I’ll figure out how to get it during the school day.”
So we forecasted it and over 300 teens said that they wanted to take the class.
MORGAN: So he said, “We’ve created a monster. I want to hire you full-time.” I said, “I don’t have any intention of being a full-time high school teacher, thank you very much. But I am interested in seeing what’s possible with this. So let’s do a pilot year.” He gave me $10,000, which at the time I thought was just awesome.
And it was the first time that we know of where in a public-school setting there was this course called Mindful Studies. And I got to be with the same set of teens for over 75 hours in one semester. So it really got to be an immersion. Most interventions of mindfulness come in and do maybe six hours with the same set of teens, maybe 12 hours. And those are great, but they’re not going to have the kind of lasting effects that we see.
LEVITT: Yeah, I’m deeply interested in Peace in Schools because I feel that our schools just don’t teach the right subjects. Imagine we started from scratch and we tried to build the best possible educational experience, ignoring constraints and ignoring history. I suspect we’d put much more emphasis on mental health, on knowing oneself, on developing the skills needed to deal with loss or anxiety or abuse.
MORGAN: Our education system was designed in the 19th century and these students were not being taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to be adaptable or how to access resilience. I live into the vision that at some point this inner curriculum that we offer is going to be as valued as the way we think about physical education in public education. I mean, that was only introduced, what, 100 years ago or something?
So it doesn’t seem to me to be an outlandish vision that at some point we’ll think it’s crazy to have an educational structure that doesn’t include wellbeing, tools of resilience, social emotional learning, healthy coping mechanisms that are so significant now.
LEVITT: So you taught this course yourself the first time?
MORGAN: I taught it myself. But here’s the funny part of the story — I had also been doing some volunteer work at a school called Rosemary Anderson, here in Portland. And Rosemary Anderson caught whiff that Wilson High School was going to bring me in for three sections of mindful study. And so, the principal at Rosemary Anderson called and said, “Well, that’s not very fair. Our school should get to have this too then.” And I said, “Well, first of all, I’d need more money. And you know school budgets, I’m sure you don’t have money. And second of all, I can’t be in two places at once.”
So she said, “I’ll be back in touch within a week.” And I didn’t think too much of it. But within a week she called me back and said, “I just got 24,000 dollars from the city of Gresham.” Who’s ever heard of getting a grant that quickly?
LEVITT: That’s very surprising, yeah. But that’s just the money part. Where did you find the teachers?
MORGAN: I called the longest-term student at the time that was here in Portland who had been somewhat disenchanted by her experience of clocking in and clocking out of a job that was centered around architecture. And I said, “I, actually, have this vision of teaching this class over at Wilson High School, having you sit in on the class, then you go and do the exact same thing down at this other high school. But I’d need you to put in your two weeks’ notice by the end of today.” And she did. You got to give credit to the millennials for being so willing to just drop everything and try something wild.
LEVITT: So you created from scratch, essentially overnight, this semester-long curriculum. Can you describe the types of tools that you were teaching the teens?
MORGAN: The first thing we do in the class is we explore the negative self-talk that we all have. You have that voice that I’ve made reference to in this conversation in your head that is judging yourself or judging others or judging the world. And we go through a process that allows the teens to get in touch with that voice, in which they’re writing down what they hear. And I won’t give every detail of the exercise, but there are some things that happen that allow each teen to end up with another person’s inner dialogue. They don’t know whose it is.
But then we do role plays where we’re acting out the experience of that dialogue. We’re letting what’s normally hidden and internalized and quiet become loud and externalized and embodied. And then teens are in relationship with each other around that voice. Another thing we explore in the class are coping mechanisms. When I’m stressed, what behaviors do I engage in that actually lead towards suffering rather than away from it? We explore survival strategies. Survival strategy might be: I’ve learned that as long as I do everything well and always cross my T’s and dot my I’s and if I focus on being a perfectionist, society will reward me. And then I suffer deeply trying to meet those standards.
So, again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to do something well. But we explore what happens when it becomes a strategy to survive rather than an expression of, “I’m excited about this project, so I want to do it well.” We explore how we get stuck in the mind of: “I’m always the center of the universe. So what does it mean to go outside, to get beyond that ‘I, me, my’ mind?”
LEVITT: So being so close to these students, you must have seen and heard amazing stories about how your teaching was affecting things in their life, actions, activities they were doing, how they reacted to their relationship with their parents. Are there stories that spring to mind?
MORGAN: The first one that came to mind when you said that is a student that I’ll call Emanuel. Emanuel had been in my class three times in a row. It was obvious to me that he was a bit of a troublemaker in school. But he loved the class. He always showed up, he was always on time. And I’ll never forget, the principal came in one day and said, “Hey, I need to talk to you in the hall here. Emanuel is failing economics.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t know much about Emanuel’s classes outside of mine.”
Well, he never went to economics and he was just consistently coming to my class. So I went up to the office with Emanuel and we met with the school counselor and the school counselor said, “You’ve taken this class three times. You’re failing economics because you’re not going to economics. Why are you, in a sense, crashing mindful studies?” And this student paused and said, “Mindful studies is the reason I’m alive. I wouldn’t be sober without mindful studies. I wouldn’t be coming to school at all without mindful studies. It is a lifeline for me.”
This is way beyond teaching teens how to — there’s that mindfulness exercise of eating a raisin and then just focusing on the taste of the raisin. And that’s a traditional mindfulness exercise. Nothing wrong with that exercise. But in our class, we go so far beyond what I think of as Mindfulness 101. We’re really offering social-emotional learning that is deeply transformative for these teens. We were just studied by Johns Hopkins. And one of the things that came forward in that study is that students who have very high levels of adverse childhood experiences experienced greater benefits.
LEVITT: Has there been parental resistance? I would think there’s a chunk of the population that would feel this is too esoteric or new-agey for their comfort level.
MORGAN: Well, it likely wouldn’t have started in the way it started if I weren’t in Portland, Oregon. I happened to be in a setting where the average parent is not going to be scared of the word mindfulness in a course description, especially when it’s very clear, and I should say this, it’s very important to me that this class is an elective. I do not believe mindfulness should be a required course. I think students should be able to choose whether they’d like to have this exploration. And what we tend to see is that students who need this experience will be drawn.
LEVITT: I’d like to pause and ask some tougher questions that more skeptical listeners probably have echoing through their mind.
LEVITT: So how much does it cost per student fully loaded to deliver this material?
MORGAN: Last time I did the math it was about $250 per semester a head. And if you consider costs of, let’s say, therapy or therapeutic interventions for students with high levels of trauma, it’s just astronomical. But $250 per student per semester? That’s actually really reasonable, especially for what we get out of it.
LEVITT: So as an economist, when I see a good local program, I want it to be universal. And I really wonder, though, as much as I like your program, is it really scalable? And to what extent, if you made this, say, a course for every kid in the U.S., how you would be able to maintain anything like the quality?
MORGAN: It’s not something that will move quickly because it shouldn’t, because we’ll compromise that integrity if it does. The Peace in Schools philosophical approach has to be a deep-immersion training experience. It can’t be that someone just does one online course and then is certified as a Peace in Schools instructor.
The best way to train an instructor is they do several weeks of immersion in the philosophical approach, understanding the tools, having their own experience of the tools. So they’re actually always teaching from direct experience. Then we move into an experience where we’re paying them to shadow another teacher for a full semester. So right now, it’s quite expensive to onboard a new teacher. And we’re not even hiring teachers who don’t already have years of mindfulness experience under their belt. It’s not our job to teach them mindfulness, in other words.
LEVITT: Now, we just got done talking about how with 75 hours of time in a classroom with teens, you can hugely impact their lives and the importance of having that time. But now you’ve taken a different path also by writing a children’s book in which you’re trying to get to the same goals, but through a very different medium. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MORGAN: I’ve never framed it this way before, but I might say that it’s— my calling is just to be a lighthouse. So offering whatever comes through this lighthouse is what I’m committed to. It might be a children’s book. It might be a deep semester-long course. It might be a retreat I’m offering. And my hope is that this children’s book — it’s for ages nine and up — that it ignites conversation; that it gets a dialog happening between parent and child.
LEVITT: Have you tried the book out with 9-year-olds?
MORGAN: I have. It’s actually — that’s probably been my greatest delight about it, is to do these public readings for adults and young people and to watch that in-the-moment sometimes wrestling, sometimes excitement, sometimes just engagement and curiosity with the questions that are put forward.
LEVITT: My reaction to the book was that you’ve tried to boil down everything you’ve learned in your life into something that is the length of a Dr. Seuss book, more or less. I don’t know if you have a copy of the book, would want to read just a few pages of it?
MORGAN: Oh, sure, sure. So it’s called A Kid’s Book About Mindfulness. “Who are you? Have you ever asked yourself that question? You might answer by saying, ‘I am tall. I am from New York or — how would you answer?’ But is that who you are? Or are those just descriptions? You might also answer by saying, ‘I like dancing. I don’t like trying new foods or — how would you answer?’ But is that who you are? Or are those just likes and dislikes. You might even answer by saying, ‘I’m the best at soccer. I’m the worst at math or — how would you answer?'”
“But is that who you are or are those just thoughts? You are not your thoughts. You are not your likes and dislikes. You are not the things you worry about or even the things you believe. So if you’re not those things, who are you? Did you know that there’s something that can help you discover who you are? It’s called mindfulness. Mindfulness is something you can practice any time, anywhere. Mindfulness is a way of being here right now. Mindfulness brings you to what’s real and true. It brings you to who you already are. It brings you here. It brings you now.”
LEVITT: That was beautiful. A beautiful reading. It really brought it to life. I just have a couple more questions. So you’re a deeply respected, widely loved spiritual teacher. And most prominent spiritual teachers are men. Why do you think that is?
MORGAN: Oh,my goodness. That is a really great question. And I think it’s actually an incredibly important question. We’ve talked quite a bit about the conditioned mind, about how powerful it is. We live in a society where we’re deeply conditioned to experience patriarchy in a particular way. And I can speak to my own experience of being conditioned to assume that if it’s coming out of the mouth of a man, it has more validity. I had to learn to see that conditioning for what it was so that I could let it go.
LEVITT: This relates back to your book, but do you have advice for parents who are trying to raise happy, well-adjusted children?
MORGAN: To be a happy, well-adjusted adult. We forget about the power of modeling. I think even a parent who may never mention the word mindfulness or social-emotional learning to a young person, if they’re being fully present, if they’re not judging, if they’re practicing acceptance of themselves and others, it will be felt.
LEVITT: Do you have advice for happy, well-adjusted children who want to help their miserable, closed-off parents?
MORGAN: I do. I do, actually. My experience of being around teens and young people is that the veil that stands between who you’re conditioned to believe you are and who you really are is very, very thin. We have a lot to learn from the way in which young people can often so easily see through that veil. And so, I think by creating environments where teens are empowered and are given voice and leadership and honored, that puts a young person in a position to have impact in our world.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Matt Hickey is the producer, and Dan Dzula was the engineer of this episode. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Emma Tyrrell. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.