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Life in Terkels

Measuring your life as a ratio to Studs

I measure my life in Terkels. This is a ratio from 0-1 which indicates how a life compares to the life of Studs Terkels in terms of open-mindedness, personal and emotional bravery, willingness to risk failure, charm (don't underestimate charm!), and social utility. Your Terkelness rises and falls as you live; only Studs himself has had a 1.0 Terkel from birth.

Orson Welles was about a .86 Terkel until he hit 30 (he was a 1.0 Terkel when he directed Voodoo Macbeth, at age 19, in Harlem). Samuel Gompers was about .35, if you believe some of the more radical union leaders, and a .8 otherwise. John Sayles is around a steady .85.

It's possible to exceed a single Terkel, but extremely rare. Frederick Douglass was 2.0 Terkels, which is the maximum allowable in human beings before they are clearly extraterrestrial, and Susan B. Anthony was about a 1.9 Terkels. Malcolm X was a 1.85 Terkel by the end of his life. But it's not just the famous - my friend Tom, about a .75 Turkel on the local scale, had a one week of national .85 when he helped out the Dalai Lama at the Kalachakra Festival (see link for illustration).

I am about a .36 Terkel - a little above the average, which I'd put at maybe .30. My goal is to reach at least a .51 Terkel when I hit 30, and then cruise on up, making an increasing pest of myself, working through terrible shyness. Maybe I can hit a .8 or .9 by the time I'm 70. I have a minidisc recorder and a microphone and a Web site. Now I just need time, and much more bravery.

I have been practicing talking to strangers the last few years. I'm getting better; I'll get there. I just need a bit of inner calm, then I'll have the ability to pull out even more stories. Or maybe not, but as long as I can have a certain Terkelness in my life I'll be doing well. And then I'll find you and listen to your story instead of the way it works now.

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Special Feature: the Worst Illustration of Studs Terkel
I was trying to create an image for my piece on the Terkel, a unit of self-worth.
Thursday, February 7, 2002


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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