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Closing The Circle: Memorable Stories Of 2012


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. To be honest, we have not done the arithmetic. But at a guess, we've spoken with thousands of people this past year: heads of states, soldiers, truck drivers, nurses; with a lot of reporters and even more of you, our listeners.

Today, we'd like to start the New Year by sharing an hour to catch up with several of our more memorable guests from 2012, and we'd like to hear updates from you. If you called in to TALK OF THE NATION over the past year to share your story, give us a call. Tell us what's changed. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, you know that. The email address: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're going to begin with Rich Vernon, a farmer who called in to our show when we were talking about the effects of the drought. According to the most recent national drought overview, about 60 percent of the contiguous U.S. is currently enduring moderate to extreme drought. Rich called to let us know that he'd been forced to sell of nearly all of his stock, that he's operating on borrowed money and borrowed time.


RICH VERNON: It's a desperate situation. I know there's a lot of people hurting around the world. But if you let the small farmer go, our way of life as a nation will change.

CONAN: Rich Vernon joins us now from his home in South Union, Kentucky. Happy New Year, Rich.

VERNON: Hi Neal. How are you guys?

CONAN: We're very well, thanks. Nice to have you back with us.

VERNON: It's good to be back.

CONAN: How are things on the farm?

VERNON: I was surprised to get the call to be on the show today.

CONAN: Well, how are things doing?

VERNON: Well, I would say that because President Obama won the election, and by the way I am a white, American small farmer, and I voted for President Obama to begin with, and of course I voted for him this time. I think his policies have helped me climb the ladder a little bit. But not only that, since being on your program back in the summer, my wife and my children and I did a lot of soul searching, and we kind of talked amongst our family at the table that if we ever had an opportunity to talk to someone like you again, we hoped that we would have a better story because I'm sure there's a lot of people out there in your listening audience that's just like us or far worse.

So we focused our energy on trying to help people that were worse off than we are. And so we fixed up an old farmhouse that was on the farm and allowed a homeless family to move in. They had seven children, and they've been without a home, believe it or not, for seven years. And they stayed in the home for two months until they were able to get something better and get a job.

And now we have another farm family that recently lost their farm, and they have moved into the home, and the man and his wife are living there happily and thankfully. And so rather than focus on what we don't have, we are trying to focus on what we do have to offer. And we have tried to do this for the last several years.

We have helped numerous amount of people who were homeless or drug addiction or some kind of addiction to try to get off the street by helping them get a car or get an apartment or something like that. And that is not what broke us. What broke us was the high cost of diesel, high cost of grain. And grain farmers who needed more ground took all - nearly 10 farms by offering more lease money. And, you know, that's to their gain and our loss. We weren't able to pay $300 an acre to continue to rent ground. And so we lost all the ability to raise any grain for ourselves, and when that happened, when we lost all that ground, that left us with only 100 acres that belonged to our family.

CONAN: I do hear some of your animals there in the background. How are they doing?

VERNON: Normally I have y'all on (unintelligible), and I told your director of the radio program there is it OK if I stay here, there's nowhere really I can get away from it. So I apologize for that.

CONAN: Oh, no please, we like to hear the sound. How were the holidays for you guys?

VERNON: Well, they were good. We didn't have any money to buy anything for our children or ourselves, and that was fine. But as you know back the middle of the month of December, the tragedy that occurred to our nation - and has occurred too many times - in Newtown, Connecticut, it affected all of us. If it didn't affect every American and every person in the world, I think there's something wrong with us.

So the last day of school December was not too many days after that had happened, and my wife and I were still in a state of shock and heartbreak for those families, and I just wanted to reach out to those people, and I couldn't. I couldn't reach them. So I had two boxes of tomatoes left from our produce, and they where the best tomatoes that I had at the time. And I took them in to our elementary school, and I laid them upon the counter in the principal's office, and I said: I just want you guys to know that you're in our hearts.

It was my way of reaching out to the people of Connecticut, the people all over the country, really all over the world, who have lost loved ones senselessly, needlessly. I can't do much, but I can give somebody a tomato and say you're in my heart today.

CONAN: Rich Vernon, I don't think any of us are going to bite into a tomato without thinking about you for quite some time to come. Thank you so much for your generosity and telling your story, and I'm sure that gift was greatly appreciated.

VERNON: God bless you, Neal. If you only knew what your program, especially your voice, means to me every day. It reaches out to my heart and my mind and my soul and every one of the people who work for the radio. If it had not been for y'all the last several years, through this recession, there were times in my tractor when my cattle were bawling, hungry for something to eat, and the wind is blowing sideways, 35 mile an hour, snowing, and I don't have enough feed to give them. And I want to get out of the tractor and give up and walk away and just be lost. But instead I stayed in the tractor and listened to you guys that I can get through this day. So thank you guys for being what you are to all of us, people like us that are just barely hanging on by a thread.

CONAN: Well Rich, you have all of our hopes, and hang in there.

VERNON: We're going to make it, and God bless you and God bless everybody who's praying for people like us. I pray God bless you 100 times over.

CONAN: Thanks again. Rich Vernon joined us from his farm in Kentucky. He joined in August 2010 and with us again from an update from South Union in Kentucky. In the meantime, let's go next to Susan Gubar, distinguished professor emerita of English at Indiana University. We spoke with her back last May 1st about her book "Memoir of a Debulked Woman." During the interview, she spoke of the difficult decision she faced battling a terminal form of cancer.


SUSAN GUBAR: I think that some of this idea that you have to be fighting the disease until the very end makes people feel culpable for feeling discouraged and for knowing at a certain point that the quality of their life will be hurt by the treatments that might extend their life. And I think we have to be more sensitive to people's decisions. They're very personal decisions, and they're very difficult to make.

CONAN: Susan Gubar joins us now by phone from her home in Bloomington, Indiana. Nice to speak with you again.

GUBAR: It's good to be here again.

CONAN: Happy New Year. How are you doing?

GUBAR: I'm doing really much better than when I spoke to you before.

CONAN: Oh that's good.

GUBAR: Yeah, my life took turns in August, actually, both of these things happened in August. And they've brightened my existence considerably. I still am dealing with an incurable disease, but my oncologist enrolled me in a clinical trial for an experimental drug, and this is called targeted therapy, which means it's not nearly as difficult as chemotherapy. And it's really made a difference. I mean, it's given me so far five good months of being able to be in therapy but not be so debilitated by it.

CONAN: And also I would think a sense of purpose.

GUBAR: A sense of purpose because, you know, we hope that there'll be breakthroughs in cancer research, and these - this is a phase one trial. It's never been used on humans before. So it's very exciting to be a kind of lab rat.

CONAN: Yeah, Gubar the Guinea Pig.

GUBAR: Exactly, exactly

CONAN: You mentioned two things. That's one. What's the other?

GUBAR: In the same month, in August, I started writing columns for the New York Times electronic Well section about living with cancer. And that turns out to be a form of journalism as therapy. It's just been exhilarating to try a new kind of writing, and to have reader responses on the Web is quite exciting because they're instantaneous.

CONAN: Yeah, one thing to write a book; that sort of - kind of instant response is different.

GUBAR: Yes, it's very different. It's just incredibly absorbing and feels much more interactive. It's also interesting to write in 800-word units, you know. It's a lot shorter than what academics are used to.

CONAN: Yeah, that's just clearing your throat, for an academic.

GUBAR: Exactly.

CONAN: And I assume you're finding people like yourself.

GUBAR: I am finding people like myself and readers who are becoming virtual friends. I'm also finding people like myself in a support group that I've joined in Bloomington, Indiana. We meet every three weeks or so for lunch, and it's been an incredibly heartwarming experience.

CONAN: Your family, you talked about the difficult decisions that you had to make and that families have to make through this kind of disease. How's that been going?

GUBAR: Well my family gave me the most unbelievable New Year's Eve present a person can receive: a new grandchild.

CONAN: Oh, congratulations.

GUBAR: So it's been a thrilling five months for me.

CONAN: As you look ahead, this writing, the work with the new experimental drug, it sounds like, it sounds like you're looking forward to it.

GUBAR: I am. I'm thinking in small units, as people with cancer very often do. I mean, I keep on saying for the past five months or the past six months. I'm always counting. The drug will not work forever. My oncologist has assured me that we would try something else, you know, when it stops working. The journal articles may not go on. I have no idea how long they'll go on, but in small increments, small hopes arrive.

CONAN: Susan Gubar, good luck to you. Thank you again.

GUBAR: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Susan Gubar, a professor emerita at Indiana University, author of "Memoir of a Debulked Woman." She joined us by phone from her home in Bloomington, Indiana. When we come back after a short break, we'll reunite with a few more of the guests who shared their stories with us in 2012. If you called to tell us your story over the past year, call us back and let us know what's changed, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today we're circling back on 2012 one last time, following up with guests and callers from some of the stories you hear on our air over the past year. In July, Thomas Kinard joined us. He's a journeyman lineman and lead skills instructor at the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, Georgia. We spoke with him after a string of powerful summer storms left millions without electricity. He told us crews like his are welcome in cities and towns where the power is out, at least at first.


THOMAS KINARD: But my personal experience, once, say, 75 percent of the population's got their power back on, most line crews then are just in their way. But people that's got power, you know, need to realize that, you know, 25 percent of the population still does not have power. And we have to be able to get to that destination to do the job to get their power back on just like we've been doing before.

CONAN: Lineman Thomas Kinard. If you called us last year to tell us your story, we'd like to hear an update, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go next to a caller. This is Dina, Dina on the line with us from Nashville.

DINA: Hi Neal, it's good talking to you again. I called in May of 2012 to talk about the difficulties of people who have autism in securing employment. And I'm the parent of a young man who has autism. I myself have Asperger's Syndrome. And I'm happy to report that he has just finished his first semester at Marshall University, which is one of the few colleges in the nation that offers support services.

And he's doing very well there. He's passed all of his classes, and we're looking forward to next semester. That being said, though, I still have some pretty substantial concerns for his long-term being and employment. And I also would point out that, you know, despite having a master's degree, I've just had to close down my private practice because despite how wonderful the services are there, the needs of these students often exceed the standard for what's considered reasonable. And it still requires a conductor over an orchestra of services to help these kids navigate higher education.

CONAN: I have a transcript of the call, thanks to our staff here, that you made earlier, and one of the things that you mentioned back then was your son was playing ice hockey in his high school team. Is he still playing?

DINA: Well, he was the hydration consultant, which was our word for water boy for the team. But he, he - you know, most young men who have special needs spend most of their time with female special educators. And as a result, they really don't get immersed in their culture in terms of how guys communicate or don't and, you know, just a whole different kind of socialization.And so that experience with the hockey team was a total testosterone immersion experience. And he is a much better man for it. And I think it helped him to be more self-sufficient and independent away at college. You know, he lives in the dorm, and he attends all his classes and never misses an appointment, and I think that experience, he considered it a job, really gave him the work ethic he needed to be successful. So I'm very happy about that experience.

CONAN: Thanks for the update, and we wish you and him the best of luck.

DINA: Thank you so much, take care.

CONAN: So long. On May 10, 2010, we spoke with Quinn Zimmerman, who was then an aid worker in Haiti, and he spoke to us about the many challenges and frustrations of being an aid worker there.


QUINN ZIMMERMAN: One of the things that I think is actually quite challenging here is there's a strange kind of one-two punch here of dependence and expectance at the same time. The amount of aid that's been poured in and the amount of time that it's been here has resulted largely in people just kind of assuming that their needs will be taken care of.

CONAN: And Quinn Zimmerman joins us now by Skype from Basel in Switzerland. Happy New Year. Thanks very much for being with us.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, thanks so much for having me back, Neal. Happy New Year to you, as well.

CONAN: And - obviously, you're in Switzerland - you've left Haiti. What are you up to now?

ZIMMERMAN: I'm currently just visiting friends for Christmas and New Year's, but I'm going to graduate school in London, doing a master's there.

CONAN: And what are you studying?

ZIMMERMAN: I've decided to focus on conflict security and development. It's part of the War Studies Department at King's College. It's very similar in some ways to what I was learning about when I was working in Haiti, given the development factor. But I was also interested in conflict and working with people that are affected by conflict, which wasn't so much the case when I was in Haiti.So it's really, really interesting. I'm really quite happy to be involved in it. I feel very lucky.

CONAN: It does sound, though, something like an extension of what you were doing in Haiti.

ZIMMERMAN: Indeed. You know, it's funny, I believe the title of our piece before was "Aid Worker Leaves Haiti with a Sour Taste." Which was somewhat the case, definitely, but it's kind of funny. Apparently I'm not quite done with it yet. I learned a lot there, but I'm still committed to trying to figure out how to do that kind of work well, and I think it's important. So yeah, I'm still in it, for better or worse.

CONAN: Any plans to go back?

ZIMMERMAN: Definitely. I don't know when, and I don't know in what capacity, but I have too many friends that I can speak to and, you know, Skype with them every now and again and just hear from them on Facebook. And I know that after two years that I need to go back eventually and say hello to them again and just see how their lives are going. So yeah, I definitely will go, if for no other reason than to just visit. But who knows? I might find myself working in Haiti again, as well.

CONAN: It's interesting, later in the program, we're going to be catching up with some people we spoke to during - when Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area. Of course it hit Haiti before it went up to the East Coast of the United States. Your friends there, how did they do during the storm?

ZIMMERMAN: They did OK, actually. I don't know if you remember, but we had talked last time about Jenny, my friend who's a really, really smart girl there that I'm quite close to. And she and I, I talk to her more than anybody. And she told me that there was a lot of flooding, which Leogane tends to flood a lot just the way - it's just the topography of the place isn't the best for lots and lots of water. But yeah, nothing serious. Some other people were quite affected by it. So I know it did hit Haiti pretty hard. But in terms of my friends and the people that I know, yeah, luckily none of them had anything serious. But interestingly enough, what happened in New York is now, the organization that I was working for, All Hands Volunteers, they were the people that I was with in Haiti, and they're now actually running an active project in the New York area responding to Sandy. I believe they're still doing that. So yeah, it's kind of funny how things connect.

CONAN: The third world meets the first world and vice versa.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh yes, that's been the most interesting part of coming back, I have to say. Landing in London and walking down Oxford Circus because I had to go buy some warm-weather clothes, was a bit surreal after two years of Haiti. So there's definitely some readjustments. But yeah, it's good. I'm glad to be where I am.

CONAN: Well, Quinn Zimmerman, thanks very much, and good luck with your studies. What, a couple years more to get the master's degree?

ZIMMERMAN: Actually we're quite lucky here in the U.K. It's just one year. So who knows, I might be kicking around again in a year or so. We'll see how it plays out here in London. But yeah, it's just one year to get a master's in the U.K., which is nice.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much, good luck.

CONAN: Yeah definitely, Happy New Year.

CONAN: Quinn Zimmerman, a former relief worker in Haiti, joined us by Skype from Basel in Switzerland. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to - this is Sheila, and Sheila's on the line with us from St. Louis.

SHEILA: Hello there, thank you so much for your wonderful show.

CONAN: Thank you.

SHEILA: I am working very hard, after my son Adam died from cancer, to start a foundation in his honor and to educate and be an activist to the best of my ability as I pick myself up off the ground after his five years of battling cancer. And I'm working with Reenie Brewer, whose grandson was set on fire in Florida about a week ago. That was in the news. The young person that did it got 11 I'm working with Reenie Brewer and I'm working with Lorraine Vidal(ph) with FascinatingPeople.com, and just doing everything I can to educate people to be more conscious and live a better life helping one another.

CONAN: We - you called us back in - we had Harvey Weinstein on the show, and your son died in 2010. And you told us then you were writing a book about a way to do something positive.

SHEILA: Yes, to turn - to make lemonade when life gives you some negative things, which Reenie Brewer has done. Her grandson is the one who was set on fire down in Florida. And I'm working very closely with Reenie and Lorraine Vidal, with Fascinating People, who basically feature people who have no - find ways to pick themselves up and become more conscious, more helpful to one another, to become activists. And, you know, John Robbins has been an incredible mentor for me. He wrote the book "Diet for a New America." And also Mike Anderson: He did the documentary "Healing Cancer from the Inside Out." And, of course, Adam died from cancer.

And when I saw that documentary, "Healing Cancer from the Inside Out," and the documentary also "Diet for a New America," it's life-changing. And I'm doing everything I can within my power and Adam's foundation that I'm setting up to share this with the world, because it's life-changing, and it does help me pick myself up from the grief and how much I miss him, which is moment to moment, you know?

CONAN: Yeah, we can hear that.

SHEILA: But I - his legacy and his - he was a filmmaker, Adam was, and he made some incredible films before he died. So that's also part of what my life's mission is, and to be inspiring.

CONAN: Well, Happy New Year, and thank you for calling to give us an update.

SHEILA: Well, thank you for being there. You're wonderful, all of you, and I especially love Sue, your executive producer.

CONAN: So do I. Thank you very much. If you called us in the past year and have an update on your story, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Back on April 4th, 2012, we spoke with David Freed - a novelist and former reporter with The Los Angeles Times - about sending his son off to war. He spoke about trying to determine his son's motives for signing up.


DAVID FREED: I think that part of his motivation has always left me sort of puzzled. It seems as if the stories that I told him about my very peripheral experiences being in a war zone seemed only to make it sound even more attractive.

CONAN: David Freed joins us now by smartphone from his home in Santa Barbara. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Happy New Year.

And we're having some difficulties connecting with his smartphone there in Santa Barbara. We're going to try to get back up in just a moment. David Freed is the former reporter for The Los Angeles Times who wrote a very moving story about sending his son off to war and the - mentioned just there in the little bit of tape that we heard - his sense of little bit of guilt for making war sound like something his son might want to do, that the military might be something he might want to be part of, and, well, his son has gone off to Afghanistan.

A lot of David Freed's piece was about asking leaders of Congress and other American institutions whether their sons or daughters would be going off to war, why the children of people like him are going and theirs are not. We're trying to get him back on the phone to see if he can give us an update on his story. Again, if you have an update on a story that you told us over the past year here on TALK OF THE NATION, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Freed joins us now on the phone. David, welcome back.

FREED: Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks. Happy New Year.

FREED: The same to you.

CONAN: And have you heard from your son? How is he doing?

FREED: Oh, he's actually home. He surprised us on the eve of Christmas Eve. He had prepared us that he was going to probably be longer. And I was noodling around the house. The doorbell rang. I thought it might have been neighbors delivering cookies, and I went to the door, and there he was. It was, you know, needless to say, it was one of the greatest moments in my life. I told myself I wouldn't cry, and, of course, I did.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Those moments are - yeah, I'm sure. You mentioned the last time you were on his tour was going to be a year. Is he headed back?

FREED: He's home for the moment. He's - he'll be here for, you know, I think about a month-and-a-half, and then he reports for duty at Fort Benning for a few months. And after that, I'm not really sure what he's going to do. I'm not sure he knows what he's going to do. And, you know, the lesson that I certainly derived in the time that he was away was to just live in the moment and to relish the moment, and I'm not really concerning myself at this point as to when he goes and where. All I'm doing is enjoying his company.

CONAN: And breathing, I'm sure, a little easier.

FREED: Much, much easier. You know, it's a profound experience to raise a child, obviously, and then to watch that child walk out of your life and to realize that you have absolutely no influence on his welfare. And I realize that, of course, the same can be said for every parent who has a child. You know, your kid can go out there and run afoul of all kinds of things on any given day, no matter where they are. I think those risks are obviously compounded when your child goes off to war.

And the lesson that I learned in that process was - which was the great enigma for me at the outset - was how to cope with that. And I think the way you cope with that is to simply focus yourself on your own day-to-day activities and immerse yourself in the minutiae of your own life and perhaps live in a certain state of denial that your - even if you don't hear from your child, your child is doing just fine. And in my case, that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: We're closing the circle on 2012 with some of the guests and callers we've been speaking with over the year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And we're speaking right now with David Freed, the novelist and former reporter who wrote a moving piece about sending his son off to war.

Have you spoken with him? If he's asked to go back to Afghanistan, would he be happy to go?

FREED: I - you know, we - I - truthfully, we have not had that discussion. You know, I think he has a lot of opportunities and options ahead of him. He - from everything that he's told me and everything that I've been able to observe, he's very well-regarded. He's going to be promoted. I do know that there have been enticements that have been offered him in terms of specialty assignments and, you know, increases in pay and all those other things that come with promotion in a large organization. But I just don't know. And, you know, again, it's one of those things where you just have to - I have to keep telling myself that even though my preferences would be that that he not do that, it's his life. I respect that. He is good at what he does. And if that's ultimately what he decides to do, I just, you know, I have to come to terms with that.

CONAN: Our children, well, they're not us.

FREED: No, no. They're not, and, you know, and again, a hard lesson to learn as a parent. You know, you think when you're - when that bun comes out of the oven, so to speak, you know, you can shape it into anything you want. And I think every parent recognizes in fairly short order that that child is who they are almost from the outset. And whatever you attempt to do in terms of molding their direction in the long run, it has, I think, very little influence. You know, I'm immensely proud of him. I wish truthfully that I had a kid that, you know, went to work on Wall Street, and I didn't have to worry so much - although certainly there are inherent risks working in Wall Street.

CONAN: Yeah. Maybe get a job with that guy Abramoff.

FREED: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

FREED: But on the other hand, you know, I - when you do have a child, you - I think first and foremost, you know, you have to tell yourself that the primary goal for your child is that that child will be happy as they become an adult and make their own way in the world. And I think he is happy doing what he has done. Whether or not that turns into, you know, a career course remains to be seen.

CONAN: David Freed, thanks very much. I'm sure it was a wonderful Christmas at your house. More stories from 2012 as we close the circle, when we come back. It's NPR News.

CONAN: Today, we're catching up with some of the people who joined us to tell us their stories in 2012. We were speaking just a moment ago with a father who sent his son off to war. Another war-related story we covered was that of an Iraqi interpreter we called Tariq. We spoke with him on January 4th, 2012, just after U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, about the difficulties of life there after the troops were withdrawn, including physical danger and death threats.


TARIQ ABU KHUMRA: When I went out one day from the base and my brother was picking me up, and we had a car following us. And I found out that these guys were, you know, tracing us all the way, and they were having - they were armed.

CONAN: We can now use the full name: Tariq Abu Khumra, the former interpreter who worked with U.S. armed forces in Iraq. He joins us now by phone from his office in Los Angeles. Happy New Year. Nice to have you back on the program.

KHUMRA: Happy New Year. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And how did you get out of Baghdad?

KHUMRA: By plane.

CONAN: No, getting the visa would be...

KHUMRA: Well, actually, I ...

CONAN: ...the interesting part, I'm sure.

KHUMRA: Yeah. It took a while to get my visa, but finally, the U.S. embassy called me, and they said your visa is ready, and it was issued. They mailed it to me. And I booked the next flight and came through Dubai to Los Angeles direct.

CONAN: And how's the transition been?

KHUMRA: Well, it's outstanding. It's - everything is different. I mean, the quality of life, the way that, like, you walk in the streets, you never fear anybody anymore. You're equal, like, with whoever else, no matter what's your race, your religion, your ethnicity. Everybody is just like everybody else. And, yeah, it's been, like, a very, very good transition for me.

CONAN: I know that there were a lot of people who worked with either U.S. armed forces or U.S. companies and contractors who were in Baghdad hoping to get out. From your knowledge of them, did most of them get out?

KHUMRA: Well, what I know that - what you all guys did, like, last year, the coverage that you guys did on the thing, that it got the attention of the administration. The process is faster right now. I can't say that all of us left. I still have friends back there. They're still waiting. But the process is faster right now than what it was back last year.

CONAN: I wonder, what are you hearing from those friends still there, from family members still there about what's going on in Iraq now?

KHUMRA: Well, it's, like, I mean, especially at this time of year, like a month or two ago, it's totally chaotic, just - it's getting worse. That's all what they say. It's always getting worse, you know. They always hope for things to get better and for people to have a better life. But it looks like, you know, the opposite is happening. Those militias, they're getting stronger. They're getting in the government, so - especially their - the troops left, you know, those ethnic fights and the sects between Sunnis and Shiites are arising. So people are worried, especially people who worked for the U.S. forces. They are in a different category. They are like - they consider them the traitors.

CONAN: And memories are long

KHUMRA: Yeah. Sure.

CONAN: Yeah. Have you found work?

KHUMRA: Well, yeah. I got here in July. Luckily I found work in August on like an online company, online website. So everything is good. I mean I got promoted last month.

CONAN: Congratulations.

KHUMRA: Yeah. So everything is going all right.

CONAN: Well, Tariq Abu Khumra, thank you. And welcome to the United States.

KHUMRA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: We also spoke over the year with Andrea, who called us from Oakland, California. Her mom is 79 years old. Lately she's been backing into things when she drives a car.


ANDREA: She is really not safe anymore. And so I don't know how many more little accidents. They're always property damage, no one's been hurt, but it's coming, and it's coming quicker than I think everybody recognized it would.

CONAN: That was a show about asking when it's time to take away the keys. If you're one of the hundreds of listeners who called in to TALK OF THE NATION over the past year to tell us your story, call, tell us what's changed since then, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

CONAN: After Superstorm Sandy lumbered across the Northeast last fall, residents dealt with flooding water, power outages, property destruction and death. More than 4,000 FEMA personnel are still deployed to help victims deal with what Sandy left behind. More than half a million people have applied for assistance. In Staten Island, residents whose homes were destroyed sought shelter and got a hot meal and hurricane relief tent just last night, when temperatures dipped below freezing on the Jersey Shore. As residents worked with insurance companies and FEMA to coordinate repairs to their homes and businesses, clubs and shops along the boardwalk are hoping to reopen soon. Back on October 30, 2012, as Sandy raged, we spoke with a woman named Bridie Hatch, whose wife Amy went into labor as the hurricane hit New York City. Here she is describing how Amy was transported out of the room in their hospital, wrapped in a plastic cocoon and bundled down eight flight of stairs.


BRIDIE HATCH: This is the only while she had an epidural in her back.

CONAN: Oh, my goodness.

B. HATCH: So something on the hard, plastic cocoon right on her back.

CONAN: And then into an ambulance?

B. HATCH: And then out into the blowing winds and into the ambulance.

CONAN: Amy Hatch joins us now with restored electricity and a new baby from her home in Brooklyn. Amy, nice to have you with us.

AMY HATCH: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Happy New Year and congratulations, belatedly.

A. HATCH: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: How is the baby doing? How are you doing?

A. HATCH: He is doing great. Everything is great. You know, I'm a little sleep deprived, but all in all things are really, really well.

CONAN: And it's - I understand he's got a sister. How is she doing with the new baby in the house?

A. HATCH: She surprisingly seems to be adjusting great. She's a - she is 3 years old and she's just obsessed with him. She think he's the cutest little thing ever. She hasn't quite figured out that he is monopolizing our time yet.

CONAN: Have you thought back to the night he was born? That's one of the most unusual deliveries ever.

A. HATCH: Yeah. We actually think about it all the time. It now has, you know, over the past month or so has become a lot less traumatizing to us and we've told this story about the million times to all of our friends. And it's got a lot of humor to it now, so that's good.

CONAN: The experience of being placed in that cocoon and carried - I can't imagine what that was like, all with the epidural in your back.

A. HATCH: Yeah. It was awful. That was the worst part. The stair ride down. It was pretty terrible, pretty scary, but you know, it was what had to be done. And I think we're all lucky that everything turned out great.

CONAN: And - so you're doing great. What about Bridie?

A. HATCH: She's doing great. Yes. You know, it's been a normal transition, I think, into second time parenthood with all the crazy hectic schedules and everything. But everything is really well.

CONAN: And life in Brooklyn is back to normal, at least in your part of Brooklyn?

A. HATCH: Yeah. We live in Park Slope and we didn't get really hit - hit badly at all. Nobody really lost power around here, so we were very, very lucky in that respect.

CONAN: Well, congratulations again and Happy New Year.

A. HATCH: OK. Thank you so much. You too.

CONAN: Amy Hatch joined us by phone from her home in Brooklyn. We spoke with her wife, Bridie Hatch, last year after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. We spoke with George Divoky back on June 25 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he discussed his years of researching seabirds in Arctic Alaska on an island there, and spoke about the drastic changes he's seen.


GEORGE DIVOKY: The biggest change, the most surprising change, was the polar bears showing up on an island where for 28 years I lived and never saw a polar bear.

CONAN: George Divoky joins us now by phone from his office in Seattle. Nice to have you back on the program. Happy New Year.

DIVOKY: Happy New Year to you too, Neal.

CONAN: Now, you spoke to us in June, just as the summer officially began. What did you see up there on Cooper Island for the rest of that season?

DIVOKY: Well, the thing with the conference in Aspen was the - was the new normal. And what I went to back to in the Arctic was the new abnormal. The ice retreat this year was a record retreat. There was less ice in the Arctic basin than there ever has been. And also polar bears were again on the island doing what they've always done. It was the same sort of changing situation I've seen where the Arctic ecosystem is having a tougher and tougher time. And at the same time, Shell Oil start drilling offshore so that there were both direct and indirect threats to the birds I was studying.

CONAN: That particular rig is now in some difficultly in the Gulf of Alaska, so it's unclear it's going to be back next season to see if it can drill in those Arctic waters. But in the meantime, the black guillemots that you've been studying, as the ice retreats, don't they have to fly further and further and further to find food?

DIVOKY: Yes, that's true. I didn't know this until I started putting some geo-locator tags that tell me where the birds are flying and found out this year that they're having to make 1,000-mile round trip that they never had to make in the past because the ice is now 500 miles off the coast in late September. And this is bound to be a major energetic cost for them and to have all sorts of implications. And again, this is just one indication of that ice system being greatly reduced. There are lots of other species - bears, seals, polar bears, fish - that are tied to it, and the guillemots are indicating how that system is changing.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you mentioned all those different creatures from the megafauna like the polar bears down to the zooplankton. A lot of us don't think of that part of the world, the ice, as an ecosystem.

DIVOKY: No. And that is the problem in that - and it's - the media, in general, reports on the ice retreat as a physical loss such as what you would have with glaciers, but it is a loss similar to what's going on in the Amazon rainforest. There is an ice ecosystem that used to be twice the size prior to 2000 of what it is now, and this is the major ecosystem loss that has been occurring on the whole planet. And all the species that are tied to it, like my guillemots, are having to deal with that major change.

CONAN: You mentioned the locators. Did you manage to put some on more birds that you'll be tracking this winter?

DIVOKY: Yes. Once we realize the sort of data we were getting from them, we actually doubled the numbers. So we have around 20 geo-locators. And we now realize that looking at their movements after they leave the island, something we really hadn't looked at up until 2011, is going to be a major part of our research because that will track this ice retreat. And at some point they'll be flying north to ice because they always think they'll find ice if they fly north. And at some point in this century, there won't be any ice in the Arctic Basin, and they'll find open water. And that is going to be a very interesting thing to see, how they cope with that lack of their preferred habitat.

CONAN: We know what you do up on Cooper Island for three, four months of the year. What do you do in Seattle the rest of the year?

DIVOKY: Well, this year luckily I've been able to process the 38 years of data, and we've been going through it bird by bird, egg by egg to make sure that we have the data correct and the data set. We're going to be starting some major analyses of that and also archiving it on a number of computers so that we can use it and that future generations can use it as they hopefully maintain the Cooper Island study and also want to see how things were changing in the late 20th and the early 21st century.

CONAN: Well, George Divoky, Happy New Year. Thanks very much for being with us again.

DIVOKY: Thanks, Neal. Happy New Year to you too.

CONAN: George Divoky, a research scientist who has conducted, for years, research of seabird populations on an island in Arctic Alaska. We last spoke with him at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Bryan Norcross is a meteorologist and senior executive director of the weather content at The Weather Channel. We spoke with him on October 18, 2012 about the system he helped develop to name winter storms, why he and his colleagues chose to do it.

BRYAN NORCROSS: In the modern world of Twitter and hashtags and so forth, storms need names. You've got to put hash something when you're talking about it in a tweet.

CONAN: Bryan Norcross joins us now from the studios of The Weather Channel in Atlanta. Nice to have you back on the program. Happy New Year.

NORCROSS: Happy New Year, Neal.

CONAN: And how far up the alphabet are we so far?

NORCROSS: We're up to - G will be next. We've named six storms. Would have actually been seven except one, the first one already had a name, which was Sandy, which produced that tremendous snow storm in West Virginia. So as far as our names go, Freyr was the last one, the F.

CONAN: And how has the system been working? Are people generally pleased with it?

NORCROSS: You know, it's working even better than we thought. The names show up in newspaper headlines now and then. They show up in statements from utilities, announcing what they're going to do to get the power back on. They show up at schools, school announcements and function announcements. You know, for the first year we didn't really know what to expect. But for folks that watch the Weather Channel or are used the Weather Channel, it's just become part of the dialogue, the best we can tell.

CONAN: We heard - read a story yesterday by Paul Farhi in The Washington Post, which included some criticism of this decision, at least from some of your competitors who said, well, you know, if you're going to do this, you should have reached out and consulted with more of the weather community.

NORCROSS: Yeah, yeah, we've heard that as well, and we actually would love to work with anybody. We'd love for the National Weather Service to take it over. But the fact is that the way the government works - and it's really only the National Weather Service that could work with us directly on it, and they're really the ones that ought to do it - they have a whole process that actually takes years to implement. So we think of this as a test case for them and we'll share whatever we know and whatever we've done with them, and hopefully it will become their project in the future, not that we're not happy with the way it's gone so far.

CONAN: And one of the challenges is that this is not a set system. Storms are named after certain wind velocities are reached. This is a little bit more subjective.

NORCROSS: Yeah, this is based on the impact of the forecast. So if we're forecasting a storm to be impactful and disruptive, which thankfully these days generally you can measure with airport delays and cancelations and data that comes in from roadways and so forth, that's what we're looking for to decide whether we're going to name a storm. And - but the Weather Service, you know, issues winter storm warnings based on quasi-quantitative kinds of information. So we see a path forward where it could be done in a more quantitative way based on what they do. But it's the first year. So we're experimenting here, and we'll fine tune it some, I think, for next year. But we're very happy with it so far.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us again.

NORCROSS: All right. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist and senior executive director of weather content at the Weather Channel. He joined us from their studios down there in Atlanta. We should mention we did get this note from Jane by email: Your return to some of the most memorable stories of 2012 has been fabulous. I found myself especially moved by Rich, the farmer who was on with us at the start of the hour, and his generosity in the face of adversity. He's a role model for the rest of us on how we can walk the talk. Yeah, he is.

Thank you to all of you who called in and wrote and joined us on our webpage and joined us on Twitter over 2012. We'll hope to speak with many of you again over the next year. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.