When Cloe Shasha was four, she learned the word east. “East!” Cloe screamed. “East like a treat! Like a macaroon!”
As she learned to speak, she connected each word to a distinct taste, smell, or texture. For a long time, she assumed that everyone learned words this way. It was only in her twenties that she realized she had synesthesia, a phenomenon that literally means “a blending of the senses.”
I love to ask her what words taste like. Her own name, Cloe, is a combination of glue and cooked rice, like risotto. Tyler, her brother, is warm frothy milk, like you would find on the top of a cappuccino. Vestibule is the smell of a piping hot Xerox machine. Herbert is an onion that’s begun to slime. Middlebury is mashed-up red currants, perhaps on their way to becoming a dessert sauce. Friend is the comforting, woody smell of cloves.
Cloe is one of my best friends. After graduating from Middlebury, we lived together in a small, overpriced apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, nicknamed “the fishbowl.” We took turns living in the second “bedroom,” which was really an area of the living room separated by a glass wall.
Now she’s turning 30, and we’ve been friends for 10 years. Since graduating, we’ve gone on bike trips, hosted dinner parties, fallen in love like teenagers, bought a vacuum cleaner, asked for promotions, hired a plumber, and weathered a few breakups. I’ve seen her small triumphs, like discovering the ideal salad dressing recipe, and her major transitions, like identifying as gay and then queer.
During the past decade, I feel like I have had the best seat to an epic play: the story of my friend’s life unfolding. She’s the same person I have always known, but she’s also becoming more herself each day.
TED: a bowl of peanut butter granola.
Cloe and I became friends my first semester at Middlebury, and she was one of the first people I ever met who actually grew up in New York City. She had giant, blonde curly hair, which made her easy to spot in the dining hall. She was a fast talker, a straight shooter, someone who ordered exactly what she wanted at restaurants and never looked back.
In her junior year at Middlebury, she founded TEDxMiddlebury, a local chapter of the TED Conference. A full year of planning went into the event, from designing the website to timing out the cookie breaks. The first event featured 16 speakers, most of them Middlebury alums. During the after-party, Cloe received a phone call. It was Rory Riggs ’75, the founder of an analytics company and a longtime TED Conference attendee.“He was calling from a mountain,” Cloe told me. “I think it was Kilimanjaro.”
Riggs was actually hiking in Jordan and had been tuning into a livestream of the event. On the phone call he offered to cover all of Cloe’s expenses to attend the 2011 TEDActive in Palm Springs. It was an act of extreme generosity that changed her life.
TEDActive was a sister event to the TED Conference, where attendees watch a livestream of the talks from the comfort of their beanbag chairs. Many of the attendees, like Cloe, had planned their own TEDx event or accomplished something exceptional at a young age. She arrived not knowing anyone and picked grapefruits from the trees for breakfast. As Cloe came down the hotel’s stairs holding her grapefruits, a TED host named Rives walked up to her and said, “You must be Cloe.” Rives had memorized the names of nearly all 500 conference attendees.
Between sessions, the hallways filled with chatter. At night, attendees went to mixology parties and signed up for nighttime Jeep drives to the middle of the desert. “It was so exciting, I barely had time to pee,” said Cloe. In the pool, she struck up a conversation with a woman who worked at TED. “I’m starting an event at TED that’s for youth. If you want to interview for the team, call me when you’re back in New York,” the woman said. Then she hopped out of the pool. “Did I just get a job?” Cloe wondered.
Cloe has worked at TED for six-and-a-half years now, and she is currently the director of speaker development on the curation team. “The essence of my job is to make TED talks as good as they can be,” she said, “both through finding good speakers and pitching them up the chain, and working individually with speakers to make their talks stronger.”
Cloe has helped produce talks with many prominent figures, including Monica Lewinsky, sex therapist Esther Perel, author Roxane Gay, Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, and president of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. Now she’s also helping produce Sincerely, X, a podcast for speakers whose stories necessitate anonymity. The first season featured stories from a victim of domestic violence and a man in jail for white-collar crime.
Many speakers who meet with Cloe have been waiting their entire lives to share their ideas. In their TED talks, they typically have between 8 and 15 minutes to share the culmination of a lifetime of research or to talk about a personal experience. It’s not uncommon for speakers to come to Cloe with first drafts 30 to 45 minutes long or to show up to a tech rehearsal jittering with nerves.
Cloe’s strengths are perfectly suited to the shaky, stressed-out speaker. She’s allergic to indirectness and gives her notes and criticisms with an unusual combination of compassion and candor. She has a nerdy enthusiasm for new ideas, which scientists find very flattering. And in her work, she values clarity and practicality above all else.
In general, she’s unconcerned with appearing cool, which, in a way, makes her very cool.
Childhood, the smell of a wool hat.
At a party in 1980, Cloe’s father, Dennis Shasha, challenged the room to a math puzzle. Dennis was a PhD student at Harvard, and the partygoers were academics. The room was stumped.
A couple of weeks later, he met a woman named Karen Shashoua. He presented the puzzle to her, and before he could finish explaining how it worked, she interrupted with the correct answer. They were 24 and 25, both Iraqi Jewish. They had both attended Yale but never knew each other. Their last names were two letters apart, Shasha and Shashoua. Their birthdays were both August 15. They fell in love.
Cloe has no h in her first name because Dennis was bothered by the inefficiency of an extra h to spell Chloe. He became a computer science professor, and the family moved to NYU faculty housing on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.
Their apartment now serves as a de facto international youth hostel, a safe haven of delicious smells and engaging conversation. On any given night, dinner may be served with a group of visiting German playwrights from down the hall or a collection of Dennis’s graduate students. If you come over for dinner, you may be greeted at the elevator by Dennis practicing his juggling and then be invited to spend the night on their gigantic blue couch.
“Dennis is the most interesting man in the world,” says Will Bellaimey ’10.5, a friend of Cloe’s and a frequent apartment guest. In the morning,
Dennis wakes up and eats dinner. Usually meatballs. From there he keeps it light, snacking on nuts, chocolate almonds, and lactose-free milk for the rest of the day. He wears the same outfit, no matter the season: shorts, a T-shirt, a scarf, and yellow socks (yellow in memory of the only car he ever owned, a yellow Honda named Penelope). At night, he sleeps around four hours, supplemented by many micro-naps throughout the day. He works best in bed, where he’s comfortable and can nap when he needs to.
“I never know what he’s working on, and then suddenly he’s published a book,” Cloe said. For years, he wrote the puzzle column in the magazine Scientific American as well as a series of puzzle books called The Adventures of Dr. Ecco. (As a teenager, Cloe illustrated his puzzle columns.) For decades he’s maintained a correspondence with a puzzle fan in Canada, whom he still has never met. Cloe says that they are “thought partners with similar puzzle minds.”
Cloe’s mom, Karen, is an artist, photographer, and musician. “My dad sees the world in black and white, while my mom inhabits the gray area in between,” Cloe told me. She has early memories of her mom making wood-frame houses with walls made of photographs, as well as hand-carved chairs that looked like people. “The legs looked like human thighs, and the tops looked like curly hair. Then she would burn them and photograph them burning.” For the past few decades, Karen has sported the same haircut my boyfriend has now, an asymmetrical gathering of curls, long on the top and short on the sides. In the ’90s, she added a blue streak running through the front.
Every seven years, Cloe’s family moved to France for her dad’s sabbatical. She arrived for the first time as a three-year-old, speaking no French, in a preschool where toddlers used cloth napkins and cutlery to eat meals. She was reprimanded by teachers for not speaking French and was teased by the other preschoolers. She was unable to defend herself, afraid, and desperate to communicate.
When she was back in the United States, the feeling of being an outsider lingered. When she was five, she remembers watching a group of two-year-olds play in a sprinkler. “I felt like a creep watching them,” she said. “But I was so fascinated to see how they were less conscious of themselves than I was, they were freer. I felt already at five more self-conscious.”
She began badgering her parents for more siblings. They eventually had one more child, her brother, Tyler, who is six years younger. “I wanted 17 siblings,” she said. “But I feel lucky that I was born into a family with many cousins.” Her father has 42 first cousins, and she has over 200 second cousins.
When she found out how babies were made, at age four, she wanted to know everything about fertility. She spent hours in the library reading about reproductive systems and genetic disorders, and became fascinated by twins. She observed the identical twins at her school closely. (“I remember Will always had drier skin than Bart,” she recalled.) This interest never faded, and today she’s pursuing volunteer doula training. Her eyes lit up as she described her first encounter with a placenta: “I loved seeing how beautifully intact it was,” she said. “It looked like a cabbage.”
Cloe invites TED speakers based on what she finds interesting, and thus her curiosities find their way into the TED zeitgeist. She follows new research closely, hoping to awaken the public to scientific advances that may otherwise go unnoticed. I asked her if she worried TED might be a passing fad, but she shrugged. “I don’t think that ideas will get old,” she said. “I think the format if we don’t innovate could become old; I don’t know if people want to watch videos. But the topics we’ll be confronting in the next few years, like robotics, artificial intelligence, and the ethics around all of that . . . those ideas aren’t going to get old.”
In late October, I flew to New Orleans to accompany Cloe on a day of rehearsals for the annual TEDWomen conference. The event was held in the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown New Orleans. The iconic TED letters, which exist in a variety of sizes to fit the proportions of different stages, had been shipped from New York City. I crept up to measure the height of these letters, and they reached up to my belly button. Below the stage, a tech hand-spritzed the lights with hairspray every 15 minutes to make sure the cameras didn’t catch a reflective glare. A camera guy, who had flown in from Nashville, used a 34-foot metal rig for the camera’s signature sweep across the TED stage.
The theme of the event was bridges, and a custom mural and sculpture of a bridge served as the backdrop. At 8 a.m., a core team of TED staffers huddled around a table to run through the event logistics. “How do we see a 40-girl chorus onstage without risers?” asked one woman. Another staff member ran in late to the meeting, feeling frazzled and upset. “It’s normal for people to overreact in the heat of the conference,” Cloe whispered to me.
There are four days of 52 speaker rehearsals to move through, and the TED team works from 8 a.m. to midnight. One hundred fifteen TED employees had flown in for the event, and 35 local staff had been hired. Around a thousand guests from around the world had purchased tickets, which sell for $2,495 each. The speakers finished each rehearsal with a sigh of relief and immediately entered a debrief session with two or three TED staffers. “People develop talks at the last minute,” Cloe said. “It’s a nightmare, but it also makes them good.”
The speakers had been found every possible way: a viral blog post, a podcast, and a snippet of conversation in everyday life. In her day-to-day job, Cloe works with interns to draw speakers from a massive database of nominations (many people nominate themselves). She also finds speakers by word of mouth, through her impressive virtual Rolodex of connections (she’s recently been curating her Facebook friends in anticipation of hitting the 5,000-friend limit).
In many of these talks, the classic TED clichés were on full display: the theatrical reveals, the search for a dramatic moment where everything has changed, and a lengthy pause after every sentence. These tropes have been mocked in parody videos, and I asked Cloe if these things bothered her. She responded incredulously: “Everything that’s good gets mocked, so who cares?”
Memory, a thin slice of radish.
Queer, a bit like iron, if you could taste the posts of an iron fence.
Cloe majored in psychology at Middlebury, and her thesis research was inspired by a question that had long been bothering her: Why do we forget so much of what we learn in school? “I have a profound sadness around the idea that we lose so many of our experiences to the abyss of the brain,” she said. “In order to make sense of things, I want to be able to refer back and construct a narrative.”
Her childhood bedroom has a stack of 85 journals, chronicling most days of her life from age 6 to 18. She even printed out her AOL Instant Messenger conversations as a middle schooler (a rare relic I imagine future anthropologists will covet). Her methods border on the scientific: photos, journals, and folders of documents are all meticulously labeled and organized by date. If this thorough documentation is a memory device, it’s working. In my interviews with her, she vividly recounts incidents from when she was three years old, as well as the first moment she encountered each of her best friends.
Two years ago, her journaling style of 13 years pivoted when she read the work of author Maggie Nelson. Nelson recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her writing about her life as a queer woman. “She inspired me to try blending personal narrative with research and commentary,” said Cloe. “There is no better way to reflect on my life than to think about things this way. It gives a whole picture.” Nelson’s book The Argonauts was the first account of queer sexuality that felt relatable to Cloe. She now identifies as a queer woman, because she’s attracted to women as well as people who were assigned female at birth and identify on the masculine side of the gender spectrum.
As a child, she was boy crazy, and she says that she fell deeply and truly in love with a boy named Jake at the age of 10 (the relationship became long distance to France, and she didn’t fall in love again for another seven years). But as she got older, her queerness wasn’t a huge surprise. “When I was little, I didn’t behave in the way that normal girly girls behaved,” she said. “I didn’t get excited about things in the same way. Like, I never shrieked. When I watched movies, I never felt like I was any of those people.” She was obsessed with drawing different phenotypes of the human body, trying to understand what was beautiful. “I felt like I had spent my whole life fighting to be normal,” she said. “When I first discovered I was queer, I definitely wasn’t like ‘Yay, now I’m different!’ I felt like an outsider weirdo always, and I didn’t fit in easily. Now I’m re-embracing being different.’”
One of the biggest transitions has been reimagining the heteronormative family that she had always pictured as a kid. She had never imagined her family unit would be anything the world saw as “other,” but now she realized that her kids’ lives would not be a normative one.
When she started dating someone who used the pronouns they/them, she was shocked by her parents’ difficulty transitioning to a new gender pronoun. They asked if they could use something that was grammatically easier, and Cloe published the letter she wrote in response in the Huffington Post. The article was titled “How to Tell Your Parents That Gender Pronouns Matter.” She realized that if her politically liberal, forward-thinking, New York City parents were having trouble with these pronouns, other people could definitely use help, too.
She began thinking of ways that she could incorporate her queer identity into her work at TED and has brought new LGBTQ speakers to the TED community. This year, the TED curators will host their first speaker who uses a gender neutral pronoun on the main stage. In anticipation, Cloe offered to educate the staff about how to use gender neutral pronouns and held a workshop about hidden identities.
“People talked about all sorts of things, like being Muslim in America, or growing up poor,” she said. “It feels so good to be publicly out, to feel at home and safe at work.”
Cloe and I talked for three hours in her office at TED, even though she was running a slight fever (she’s definitely the type of person to still go to work when she’s sick). I left the office after my “interview” feeling warm and full. New York felt more charming than usual. On my right, a man sprinted by holding nothing but a bag of four limes. On my left, I watched another man catch his pit bull’s poop directly into a large trash bag. I loved the world of our conversations, where no thought was too strange to say out loud. Our talks took on a life of their own, meandering between theories about how taste buds work, confessions of forlorn heartbreak, and stories about falling asleep with our shoes on.
I felt that I had reached that milestone in a friendship where you can see your friends as the children they once were as well as the adults they are now. I saw Cloe studying twins and fertility in the library, planning for the unconventional family she didn’t yet know she would have. I saw her in France, desperate for communication and connection, and using tastes as a tool to retain French and English. I saw her whole life as a long science experiment, a series of hypotheses that were constantly being tested and reworked. As modeled by her father, Dennis, there is no such thing as unconventionality, just a series of life hacks that do and don’t work for you.
When I think about our friendship, I’m transported back to the nine long months I waited to attend Middlebury as a Feb. For much of that time, I repeated a wish to myself: I hope I make friends there. I hope I make friends there. Days before arrival, that wish turned into a full-blown, anxiety-fueled prayer: Please, please . . . let me have friends there! Please let me find someone!
My 18-year-old self could never have imagined the depths of love she would fall into and the beautiful friends she would make. Including, at a radio meeting in the Old Stone Mill, a girl named Cloe.
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