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Joe worked at this office where every now and then, the office manager would bring her nine-year-old to work. Good kid, kind of tomboyish.
And she would just help out around the office. She would pass mail out. And over the time that I was there, she and I developed this kind of teasing relationship. She would come into my office, and she would drop my mail off and stick her tongue out at me. And I would fake chase her down the hallway or something.
Yeah, yeah. She was an incredibly sweet kid. And so there's this day when it's early in the morning. I've arrived at the office. And I go into the bathroom. And when I come out of the bathroom, I have my glasses in my shirt pocket, rather than on my head.
And I look down this hallway and I see this small person walking towards me. And I then get down and start to crab walk towards her. So I go down on my haunches and put my hands up as if they're claws and waddle towards her.
And as I'm waddling towards her, I say, in this kind of creepy voice, "Oh, no, I can't believe you're here today." And then, at that moment, as I say "today," she comes into focus. And I realize, in fact, it's not at all the young girl who I thought it was. But it's in fact, one of our interns, a business intern who is a midget.
And so she comes into focus. And I see her. And I'm horrified. And I go bolt upright. And I stand up, and I say, "Oh my god. I'm terribly sorry. I thought you were somebody else."
And I think to myself, "Who could she possibly think that somebody else is?" And I wondered at the time, should I have tried to explain it to her? And it seems to me like one of those situations where it only gets worse the more you try to explain it. The only thing I could do was, in fact, apologize and then end all contact with her forever, right there.
Joe says the woman was utterly gracious. She introduces herself. She tries to put him at ease.
But Joe says, not only did he cringe when this happened, he cringes every single time he tells this story. People cringe when they hear this story. And why? Seriously, why? What is it about certain stories that get this physical reaction out of us?
You know what I mean? What are the physical reactions we ever actually give a story? There's laughing. There's crying. There's cringing? It's in the top three?
Well, this week on our radio show, This American Life, we have looked into this matter. And I have to say, if there is scientific literature specifically on the physiology or psychology of cringing, we and many helpful doctors and researchers were unable to find it. But from examining a wide array of cringe stories, we have made some tentative conclusions about what it is that makes us cringe.
Consider please, Howie's story. It was his sixth grade graduation dance. There had been one teacher, Mrs. S, who had been really cruel to him all year long. He was chubby, and she used to examine his papers for food stains, which then she would hold up and show the entire class. She'd mock him in front of class up to the day of the graduation dance.
As we're in line, she's like, "OK, you're all going to high school. I want you to be good." And then she kind of stops. And she says, "Well, I don't know if we're all going to high school." She goes, "I don't know. What do you think, kids? You think Howard should pass?"
And then all the sudden, my heart dropped into my stomach. "What do you mean, ma'am?" "Yeah, yeah, let him pass. Let him pass." "I don't know. I don't know if we should let Howard pass. It's up to you kids. It's up to you. Should Howard pass?" "Yes, yes." "Should he pass?" "Yes, yes." "I don't know."
That was humiliating, but that is not the part of the story that makes him cringe. The cringe part happens when, dressed in his best Saturday Night Fever tight pants and polyester shirt, he takes matters into his own hands. He takes action. At the end of the dance, relieved that he is, in fact, graduating, he finds her in the teachers' lounge.
So I walk in. I'm feeling good. I'm smiling. I'm strutting around in my John Travolta clothes. I grab my jacket. And picture this really sweaty, fat little kid, clothes plastered to his body.
Mrs. S, who'd been so cruel, is standing with another Mrs. S, the French teacher.
I basically bowed to the French teacher. And I said, "Enchantee, Madame S." And then I looked at the other Mrs. S., and I went, "Thank you so much, Mrs. S." And I took a deep bow. I actually waved my arm underneath my waist, bowing deep to my knees, you know, getting up, flipping my jacket with one finger over my shoulder and going a Jackson 5 spin around, and strutted out, thinking I was the coolest.
I remember that when I bowed, and I said "Enchantee," and all this, I remember their faces. And they were disgusted. There wasn't a smile. There wasn't some kind of, "Oh, thank you, Howard." It was basically silence, this stern, down-at-the-mouth like, uugh.
The things that she did to him were just humiliating, he says. It was the fact that he decided to thank her for it. That's what makes him cringe.
And that seems to be true of a lot of cringe stories. The people in them go out of their way to embarrass themselves. In Joe's case, to get back to the guy crab walking in the office, if he had just come out of the men's room with his fly open, for example, that would've been embarrassing.
But he went further. He made a special effort. A part of him was proud that he was the one adult in the office cool enough to goof around with a little kid. And pride, my friend, goeth before a cringe.
You know, you're in your office. And then suddenly, you're just like, "You know, I'm in a pretty good mood today. And I'm ready to goof around a little. I'm going to crouch down by these mailboxes, and I'm going to walk like a crab towards her down the hallway. This is a stuffy place full of stuffy people, and I'm still a pretty fun guy."
You cringe in that moment of revelation, when you suddenly see that maybe you are not the fun guy, when you see yourself as others see you. And it is not pretty. One of the doctors that we talked to about cringes for this week's show pointed out that a cringe is basically the human body cowering in fear for an instant. And he said that one of the most fearsome, stressful things that we can encounter as people is the thought that we are not who we think we are, the thought that the world sees us differently than we see ourselves, and not in a good way.
Well, our program today, as always from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our show, an investigation into stories that make us cringe. Act One, What We Cringe About When We Cringe About Love. Nancy Updike explains the peculiar characteristics of a cringe love affair. Act Two, M*A*S*H Notes, in which I tell a story from my past that I actually spent two decades trying to forget about a week that I had back in 1979 on the set of a television show. Also in that story, why I hope to never run into Alan Alda on the street.
Act Three, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben-Gurion and Me, the story of one teenager's cringeworthy dream, to become prime minister of a nation in which he does not even reside. Act Four, Cringe and Purge. We have a story from Bruce Jay Friedman about a man who tries to rid himself of a decades-old cringe, if that is really possible. Stay with us.
Act One. What We Cringe About When We Cringe About Love.
Act One, What We Cringe About When We Cringe About Love. If cringing is basically shrinking from something dangerous or painful, what could be more potentially dangerous and painful than love? Nancy Updike has this report on the characteristics and bylaws of cringe love.
A cringe love story always starts with a one-liner.
went out with a guy whose role models were Jean Genet and Clint Eastwood.
I once went out with this alcoholic. And I guess I just didn't realize he was an alcoholic, because he was doing so much cocaine at the time.
I once dated a guy who, three months after we broke up, slept with both his stepmother and his stepsister.
You probably notice these are all women. That's because cringe love stories are usually embarrassing. And I'm generalizing here, but in my experience, women like telling embarrassing love stories. We bond over them. We like to one-up each other. "You did that for love? Well, I did this."
And while I'm generalizing, let me also say that as far as I can tell, the most common cringe love story is the kind that takes place in your early 20s with a guy not that much older. And you are new at love. It's not your first relationship.
But everything about your romantic self still feels on loan from somewhere else-- movies, rumors, your friends. You don't quite know who you are yet when it comes to love because you're still becoming that person. And everything these early 20s cringe love stories have to teach us, we can learn from a woman from Texas named Julie.
I once went out with a guy who, while we were dating, joined the Hare Krishnas.
So how did he tell you this?
Well, we started going to Prasadam, which is this thing the Krishnas do on Sundays. They have this big feast. And basically, it was a way to get free food.
Free food is very important in this story. The reason is that Julie's boyfriend was a squatter. Do you know what that is? For years, in cities all over the country, people have been taking over abandoned buildings and living in them, squatting. People do it for a lot of reasons, anti-corporate idealism, adventure, lack of interest in getting a job.
Julie's boyfriend was a middle-class kid from New York who, when they met, was squatting in an abandoned warehouse in Austin, Texas, bartering, hitchhiking, and keeping an eye out for free food. Julie, at the time, lived in an air-conditioned apartment and drove an Oldsmobile. She was in her last year of college.
We used to go around whenever I wanted pizza. We couldn't order pizza. We had to go to all the pizza places and ask for mistakes, because he didn't believe in paying for anything. And he used to say that when we did that, that I couldn't go in because I looked too much like a sorority girl, which I'm not. But he said I looked like one.
So squatter guy meets college girl. A princess, he'd call her. And they fall in love during an AIDS outreach workshop.
A lot of cringe love stories take this form, living on the edge guy meets suburban girl. They move in together to her bourgeois apartment. He takes her on midnight bike rides. She buys him dinner in real restaurants. He spare-changes on the corner to take them out for ice cream. And every week, they go to Prasadam to get a free vegetarian meal from the Hare Krishnas.
And then one day, he came home after Prasadam. And he said he thought he'd like to go to classes in the morning. They had classes where you could learn more about Krishna consciousness. And I said that that was cool. I wasn't really interested in it. So he started going to classes. That's how it started.
Then he came home, and he wanted me to shave his head, which wan't that big of a deal. I thought it was actually kind of cute. But then he came home and he had the gear.
He had this long, white sheath they call a dhoti. And he told me he was going to start wearing that. And that's when I started feeling kind of weird about it.
We started fighting because he had this new belief system. He'd become totally vegan. So we couldn't go to our favorite restaurants because, well, not only was it that he was vegan, but he couldn't go to a place where he didn't know what the the emotions of the cook were. Like if they were angry, that would get into the food. These were all things he'd picked up in Krishna consciousness.
Every relationship that doesn't work out has some problem that can't be solved. With cringe love, it's an embarrassing problem. And looking back, it's not just the problem that makes you cringe. It's how long the relationship continued after this problem could not have been more clear, not only to you, but also to all your friends. That is, if you weren't hiding it from them.
And all of this was a secret from all of my friends. I didn't tell any of them anything. But one day I came home, and I had a friend over. And John was there.
And I walked in, and my whole living room smelled of incense. And he'd turned my bookshelf into a shrine to Swami Prabhupada. There was this big picture. There was candles. There was scarves.
And I said, "Honey, who's that?" And he said, "That's Swami Prabhupada." And I'm like, OK. And he said, "Do you want me to take him down?" and gets defensive right away. And I'm like, "No, that's cool. I was just wondering who there is a shrine to in my living room."
So then later, my friend left. And we just had this huge, huge fight. And it started because he had these beads. And he'd gotten me these beads.
And the Krishnas have these-- kind of like a rosary. But it's about 20 beads, and you're supposed to repeat this mantra. It's out of Hair. "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare."
You're supposed to repeat it 20 times. So you do it 400 times a day. So he's decided that if I do this, that I'll be happy, that all this anger I'm having is because I'm not chanting Hare Krishna and being happy.
So I take these beads. And I'm like, "I'm not going to do this." And he said, "Why not? Why won't you worship Krishna?"
This is the moment every cringe relationship comes down to in the end, the point where one person turns to the other and asks a question like--
"Why not? Why won't you worship Krishna?"
That's because at the heart of the cringe is a fundamental disagreement in the way you see the world. He's Montague. You're Capulet. He's 60 Minutes. You're Felicity. He's potato. You're po-tah-to, but you just can't call the whole thing off. Because on paper, the relationship seemed so romantic. The very things that make you cringe looking back, at the time were just challenges on the path to love, and not just any love, the best kind-- impossible love.
There was a point where I wanted to go to law school. And we were talking about moving to San Francisco. And I would go to Boalt, and he would hang out at the airport.
Wait a minute, you would go where, and he would go to the airport?
Boalt, the law school at Berkeley is called Boalt.
Oh, OK. And he would go to the airport. I don't understand.
The Krishnas hang out at the airport.
Julie laughs when she tells this now. She knows this story is one of the funniest things that's ever happened to her, and she loves telling it. She savors every absurdity in the story, and every absurd turn within every absurdity. But when I talked to her a few days after our interview, she said, "You know, it's the weirdest thing. After we talked that night, I went home and cried."
For Julie, this relationship was the first time she fell in love. John was different from anyone else she'd ever known. When she had to go out of town the first week after they met, she thought about him every minute.
And when I got back, he'd sent me cards from every place in Austin, with my name in them, or with a poem about me in them. He just pursued me. And he was just really romantic and exciting. Like, we did not go out for movie and a dinner ever, I think, the whole time we dated. Not that that's not nice-- that's great and everything.
But I remember, he wrote me this card from when he went on the hitchhiking trip. And he took a picture of me with him. And the postcard said, "Hey, cheesecake, thanks for the cheesecake pic." He said, "I show it around to the other guys on the--" he was actually train-hopping at that point, "--on the train." And he says, "It solicits envious grunts of approval. But no one says anything boring, like 'she's beautiful.'" And I just thought, who would write love letters like this?
She's reciting these lines from the postcard from memory. It's the only love letter she's kept as she's moved from place to place. But then, that's part of it. Her love for him is part of what she's cringing about when she looks back.
What's the part of the story where you cringe most and just think, "Ugh, why did I do that?"
I think it was when I ironed the dhoti.
Remember the dhoti? That's that long, white sheath Julie's boyfriend had started wearing. He asked her one day to iron it.
It was 25 feet long. and I ironed the whole thing.
So you did iron it.
I ironed the dhoti.
And what did you say to yourself about why you were ironing it?
I'm in love? I don't know. What do you say when you do stupid sh--? I wanted him to look nice for temple. I didn't want him to be the bad-looking bhakta with the uncool girlfriend.
Not wanting to be uncool motivates a surprising number of cringe love stories. I had long talks about cringe love with a few women besides Julie, one of whom once found herself working two jobs to support a boyfriend who spent all day writing in his journal about the affair he was having with someone else.
What makes you cringe is not so much that you are in a relationship that now seems ridiculous. It's that you wanted that ridiculous relationship. You got on the train. It was romantic. You were right in there. And you know it could happen again at any time. Who isn't willing to be ridiculous for love?
Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "WHEN YOU WERE MINE" BY CYNDI LAUPER]
Act Two. M*a*s*h Notes.
Act Two: M*A*S*H Notes. At one point during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton said this to the press about the ongoing investigations, rumors, and accusations.
I just have to try to put this in a little box, like I have every other thing that has been said and done and go on and do my job. That's what I'm going to work at.
I think once we get to a certain age, so many things have happened in our lives that make us cringe, that it is no longer a box. It's like a whole room full of boxes, any one of which makes us cringe. And what we do is we try to keep the door to that room closed.
But the fact is there are so many ways into those rooms. There's so many things that can remind us of the things that we feel ashamed of. For me, six months doesn't pass with at least one nightmare involving the cast and crew of the TV show M*A*S*H.
Quiet, please. Roll camera.
Don't you think it's about time it became an Army matter?
When I was 20, back in 1979, I spent four days on the set of M*A*S*H. I'd written them this letter on National Public Radio stationery, asking if I could do a story about the show. I watched them film scenes and rehearse lines.
Could be a good idea, Hawkeye could be an accessory before the fight.
That could be very useful, Hawkeye.
Oh, you say that? You say that?
That could be very useful, Hawkeye.
Could be useful, he says.
Well, well, I say. Well, OK. We'll let-- let's-- we'll let-- OK, well, OK, we'll let balder heads prevail. What?
I'd been an intern at NPR. I'd had short-term jobs on specials and documentaries and on All Things Considered, which meant that I was pretty much skillful enough to get access to official stationery, but not actually skilled enough to know how to do a real story on my own. Recently, I listened to the cassettes of these old interviews for the first time in 20 years, and it was one long cringe-a-thon.
I ask lots of very strange questions on the tapes, questions that usually begin this way. There's the rumbling noise of somebody mishandling a microphone, and then a little rambling preamble before the actual question.
One thing that's-- one of the messages-- one of the messages that I always get from the show is that every person should be listened to. Every person should be-- it's a very humanitarian, almost a populist sort of message that every person deserves some attention. But is there a problem with that with you? Because if you give everybody who knows you, now, by seeing you on TV, some attention, isn't that difficult? I mean, can't there be just a lot of pressure with that?
The answer to that long question is yes, of course.
This is the actor who played Klinger on the series. He is unfailingly gracious. In fact, everybody is unfailingly gracious, the stars, the extras, the writers, the crew. In a certain sense, that just makes it worse. It's one thing to be an ass in front of people who are also acting like asses. It is another to hear that you are the one and only idiot in the room.
At the time, I didn't really know how exactly to prepare for this kind of story. And in retrospect, I have to say, I probably should have watched the program a little more intensively before going to California. Intensively enough, for example, to correctly pronounce all the characters' names.
OK. Well, where should I start? Of all the characters, Father Mulcagy seems to have remained the most constant over the years.
How are you pronouncing my name? Father? I have to hear you pronounce it to make sure you pronounce it right.
Oh, that's good. Good, good. No, that's fine.
Well, most people don't see it spelled.
Well, no, I think that the spelling bothers people, because of the H close to the end.
You see now, until I came here and saw a script, I didn't know that. And I always assumed that it was Mulcagy.
That's what I thought you might have said. It sounded sort of like you said that. Believe me, Ira--
At some point in my brief time working at NPR I'd been told that one way to put people at ease in an interview is to talk a little bit about yourself. If you tell a personal story, they tell a personal story. It's just human nature, I was told. So the seven hours of tape are filled with one little story after another that I tell about my life, trying to relate and all.
One thing that happens in radio production, I know, is-- let me think of an example. Sometimes we'll be producing something. And we had a Halloween special. And we had a genetic engineer.
One thing that I'm just thinking of as you're saying this is when I'm-- I mean, I've written a lot of scripts for commercials and for plays at schools and things like that. And there's so many times that I'm not in a scene. But I give them the dialogue.
And I'll sit there. And they'll say it. And I'll say, "No, it doesn't sound right. I'll fix it," just to deal with the actor. And then they'll do it. And I'll think to myself, ah, I could do it better. Do you ever--
How much-- when I think of myself doing any sort of radio show, I feel like I'm trying to-- I feel like I've got this audience, and I've got these people. And I want to talk to them, you know? I want to get myself across.
I'm a college sophomore, literally. What's striking about these questions is that they combine complete naivete with condescension. I am both clueless, and I think I know it all.
Listening now, it's not the utter presumptuousness of it all that gets to me. It's the awkward moments where I hear myself just saying anything that I can think of, clumsy jokes and stories that are half-true and this kind of fake, familiar joshing, and basically anything else trying to make a connection. I cringe more at that because that is absolutely still in me. I hear that still in the interviews that I do now for this radio show. And most of the time we try to cut that out. What we cringe most at are the things we hate most in ourselves.
Also horrifying on these tapes are questions whose sheer rudeness I was simply too young and ignorant to understand. Asking some of the extras, do they ever want, you know, speaking parts. Asking one of the show's stars if he really doesn't think to himself sometimes, "Is this TV stuff really as worthwhile as Shakespeare?" Asking Harry Morgan, the great character actor who played Colonel Potter on the show, and who had been on countless TV shows since the beginning of the medium, this question.
It seems like in most of your roles, you're always there, but you're never the lead. You're never the center. Why is that?
Well, I don't know. Some people just sort of fall into that category. I think all my life I've been a supporting character.
It didn't occur to the 20-year-old me what it might mean to spend decades as an actor, doing fine, but not being offered leading man parts. Oblivious, I pressed on.
You must get the offers. You must-- you've been around.
No, nobody's offered me the lead in a show.
At that point, even I figure it out.
What makes a-- I'm changing the subject. What makes a successful television show?
Again, he is unfailingly gracious. Since then, I've flipped past Harry Morgan's face in old episodes of Dragnet. He shows up sometimes in old black and white movies. He's actually in a lot of classics, like Inherit the Wind and High Noon. And every time I'm watching something, and he appears, I wince. It's hard to watch. Sometimes, out of the blue, I just remember the fact of his existence, and I cringe.
Out of all this tape, though, my most cringeworthy line of questions had to do with what I called then the "message" or the "morals" of the show. The 20-year-old me seems to have been fixated on this idea that TV and radio should impart big, important ideas to the people all the time. Though, weirdly, whenever I bring this up on the tapes, I seem somehow to lack the language to express this thought clearly. Here's how I begin my interview with Alan Alda, who won Emmys on M*A*S*H for acting and for writing and for directing.
All your recent writing and directing and acting are-- all the stories have a very-- they show a lot of human values, very moralistic in a lot of ways. Do you believe that television and film should teach?
I think that to answer that question, I'd have to know what you mean by moralistic. That sounds faintly pejorative to me. I don't know. Tell me a little bit more about what you mean.
Well, when you-- what are you trying to-- well, maybe you should define it for me. What are you trying to tell your audience?
OK, I think that for me, the kind of writing that appeals to me the most, and the kind of writing that I try to accomplish, is the kind that--
For 45 minutes on the tape, I ask Alan Alda question after question. I quote him egghead ideas from egghead books. And miraculously, he gives kind of a great interview, mostly by ignoring my actual words and trying to respond to what it is that I seem to be interested in.
It turns out, he's not interested in teaching anybody a lesson, a political lesson, a moral lesson. He hates that idea. His goal is much simpler. He's interested in stories that just capture the way people are.
And I don't want to sound self-congratulatory. There are times that I don't think we make it, plenty of times. There are things I see sometimes that I wince at.
But we're always trying, that I will give us credit for, to reflect real experience. And the audience hasn't rejected us for that. In fact, the more we've been able to do that, the more the audience has made us popular.
But there were people in the beginning who said, "Oh, keep them out of the operating room. Nobody wants to see blood. That'll turn them off on the humor." If we had started a couple of years later, there would have been people who said, "Look, you've got all those nurses. Let's show the nurses in shorts and halters. And let's show them in their underwear and get them into wet t-shirts as much as you can," and stuff like that. Well, we pretty much didn't do that.
Now, this seems like a stupid thing to say. But the fact is, a lot of people in the entertainment business are afraid that if you get too real, if you reflect experience too truly, that you'll scare people away, that they'll be bored, that it's not flashy enough, or it's not, in quotes, "entertaining" enough.
20 years ago, I listened to these tapes over and over for months, cutting and re-cutting the interviews late into the night, trying to turn them into a radio story. I remember staying at NPR's headquarters, camped out in an edit booth, long after everybody had left, day after day after day. I didn't know what I was doing. I never finished the story.
Ashamed of myself, I packed the tapes away in a little box and pushed my feelings about the whole thing into another, different sort of little box, and then did what anybody does to move on. I tried to pretend that it never, ever happened. When I dream about M*A*S*H, the cast is polite, but it's clear that I did let them down.
The problem with having a big, cringey moment on the set of one of the most successful series in the history of television is that the show doesn't really go away. I checked TV guide. And where I live, in Chicago, M*A*S*H is on 10 times a day.
It was my Grandma Molly's very favorite show. And for years after I visited the set of M*A*S*H, if she and I were ever together at any kind of setting, like a party or a wedding, or any setting with lots of people around, she would tell everybody at some point, in a big voice, how I had gone to the set of M*A*S*H, and wasn't that incredible? And then everybody would gather around. And people would get all excited. And they would start kvelling.
And they would start to ask me, "Well, so what was it like? What was it like?" And it was always hard to know what to do. And so there would always be this long moment where I summoned up the energy to say something. "They're all really nice," I'd say. "They're really, really nice."
Coming up, when the person who makes you cringe might be cringing at you. And can you undo a cringe? Our non-scientific inquiry continues, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three. Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben-Gurion, and Me.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, stories that make us cringe, and some thoughts about what it is about these stories that makes us have this physical reaction. We have arrived at act three of our program. Act Three, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben-Gurion, and Me.
"December 3, 1986, Wednesday. Another fascinating day in the life of Adam Davidson. I have a math test tomorrow. I'm going to school early to tutor a girl in my class for the aforementioned test.
My math class, a joint precalculus and calculus class, consists mainly of seniors not especially interested in learning. I guess that I'm the quote, 'class expert,' unquote, in that I always do the math problems which no one else can. And for this, I'm disliked. I guess that because I apply myself, think clearly, and do a little work, as well as some intelligence helping out, I am a geek. In truth, I am far from it."
When you first read that to yourself, when you first saw it, your reaction was?
It was pure horror.
Recently, Adam Davidson, an occasional contributor to our program, found his old high school diaries. Adam's mom is Israeli. His dad is American. Adam grew up in New York. Well, his body was in New York. His brain, as the diaries reveal, was somewhere else entirely.
I remember when I was writing it, I remember very clearly, although I don't say this in the diary, that it was very clear to me that this was the diary of the future Prime Minister of Israel, me. That I would one day be prime minister. And it would be very important for history for people to know the deep thoughts of a young Zionist as he prepared his way to lead his nation.
Now, our regular listeners here on This American Life might remember that you've been on our program describing your experience in Israeli Army summer camp.
That was right before I started writing this dairy.
Read me another.
Sure. Let's see. "There's so much wrong with Jews in Israel that I'm going to have a job ahead of me. One thing is the lack of any strong Jewish identity among most Jews. This attitude sickens me.
You Jews of the world, stop worrying about money and well-being. I do not know what exactly I'll do. But if this situation continues when I'm a bit older, then watch out, world Jewry, here comes Adam." And "watch out world Jewry, here comes Adam" was all in capital letters.
It's interesting that you actually are addressing a readership.
I know. I know. That's what's kind of amazing.
And that leadership is world Jewry.
Yeah I have this thing from January 4, 1987. "I memorized "The Hope," "Hatikva," which is the Israeli national anthem, a few minutes ago. That will help me in Israel."
I find that really amazing, that here I am, the future Prime Minister of Israel, and what are the things I need? Oh god, I need to know the national anthem. I'll probably be called upon to recite that at some point.
At 16, I had such an inflated sense of myself. There was so much going on in my life then that I can remember. And I wasn't recording it.
Instead, I was creating this ridiculous fantasy of, I'm not just a 16-year-old kid who's having crushes, and a hopeless geek who can't get a girl to kiss him, and being scared and confused about growing old. I'm the future Prime Minister of Israel. And everything goes through that. But I don't know.
But maybe keeping a diary where one tells the truth, maybe that's a luxury of being a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. Maybe other people in another kind of situation need to actually make up a little fantasy.
Yeah, I think I didn't have much angst about being the future Prime Minister of Israel. I was very calm and confident and comfortable with it. And I had so much angst about every other aspect of my life. And so I now see it as just kind of a-- maybe it was a good solution. It was a good way to deal with what I was going through, to have this space where I could just be one of the greats.
I wonder what the 16-year-old Adam Davidson would feel knowing that finally, an audience of a million people was getting some of the reading from this diary.
I think this would feel so small to that 16-year-old. This would feel so nothing. This would be so unimportant.
Being on the radio.
Being on the radio, a million people, what's a million people? I mean, we're talking about history. We're talking about sweeping changes. I'm pretty sure that he would be thoroughly unimpressed.
And Adam, what would the 16-year-old you think of you now?
I think he'd be really disappointed. I think he'd be really sad.
Because you're not the Prime Minister of Israel?
Yeah, because I just have such a small life. I remember I was very disappointed and very sad about my parents. I was reading biographies, of course, of all the Prime Ministers of Israel.
And I would just think about my parents, and just think, how do you wake up every day knowing that your actions won't affect millions of people? How is that enough motivation, just to have your petty little craft, and your petty little family, and your small, little apartment? It just seemed pathetic. And they have the kind of life that basically, I want for myself.
What you're saying, though, is that the 16-year-old you would be cringing at your 30-year-old version, just as your 30-year-old version is cringing at the 16.
Yeah, that's very true, yeah. He would be very, very disgusted if he heard this radio piece. It would seem like I had settled in a pathetic way.
Act Four. Cringe And Purge.
Act Four, Cringe and Purge. There are a lot of stories in your life that the more you tell them, the less power they have over you. It's like they wear themselves out like chewing gum that stops having flavor. But cringe stories somehow do not seem to lose their power over time. Every time you remember, you cringe. So what do you do if you want to stop cringing? We have this story from Bruce Jay Friedman about somebody who decides to take action.
Bruce Jay Friedman
It had been a mild financial strain to take his wife and travel to Europe. And so for the first week, Gribitz kept reminding them that they were in a special place, much better than Rockaway Beach or Cape Cod. "You're drinking French water," he would tell his son each time the boy took a glassful. And on the way to the seashore, he would lean back and say to his wife, "Fill your lungs with some of that French air."
As for Gribitz, he tried to fill himself with enjoyment, to look everywhere at once and afraid that by doing so, he was seeing nothing. Besides, he could not feel entirely comfortable, because he had not seen a soul he knew. He tried to turn this into an advantage, telling his wife, "Isn't it great that we don't know a soul here, that we can just be by ourselves for a change?"
But actually, he longed to see just one familiar face-- Henry Nester, his insurance man, or even Uncle Hicky, who traveled to exotic places each year and raved about Miami hotels. It wasn't so much that he was lonely, but that he wanted his sense of reality straightened. How else could he be sure he was in Europe, and that it was he, Gribitz, and not some fellow in a dream?
Each night, Gribitz and his wife would take seats at a sidewalk cafe and stare across the street at people in another sidewalk cafe. One night, he picked out a familiar face across the road said to his wife, "Uh-oh. I see one I think I know, only I hope I don't, because if it's him, it's going to start a whole thing." He excused himself and crossed the street.
The fellow he went up to was well-muscled and had a deep-seamed suntan but also great swoops of hair that might have more appropriate for a concert musician. Beside him sat a petulant wife and two girls in their early teens. "I'll be brief," said Gribitz. "Your name doesn't happen to be Carroll, does it? And were you once in the Air Force?" The fellow nodded. And Gribitz said, "I'll be going back now. I just wanted to nail this down out of curiosity."
Gribitz returned to his table and said, "Well, it's him all right. It's amazing what a whole cascade of things just came tumbling into my head. Well, I've finally seen someone, and I know it's me, right here in Europe now. Only I wish that fellow had been one of at least 4,000 other people I could mention."
On the way back to their villa, Gribitz said, "Look. I'm not trying to be mysterious. It's the kind of story I just have to slide into, you know, when I get comfortable. I'm not even sure how important it is right now."
But he couldn't sleep that night. He got up, woke his wife and said, "Look, I've always been honest. What's really getting to me is that fellow I just told you about, the one I'd rather not have run into. I thought I'd just think it out and pass it by, but it's not working out that way. I'm just being honest." "Don't be so honest," said his wife.
The next morning, Gribitz called American Express. And then, in the middle of breakfast, he suddenly shoved aside a croissant and said, "Look, I don't really love these. I don't see why I have to go through the motions.
"All right. Now here's the deal. I'm going after that fellow. Let me rephrase that. I'm going to visit that sunburned guy from the cafe last night. What happened is a long time ago, maybe 15 years now, he humiliated me in front of 250 guys. Don't ask me how he did it. I was a new officer. He was an enlisted man. It shouldn't have happened that way, but it did.
I thought I'd forgotten all about it. I don't think I've thought of it once in the last eight years. But I guess it was simmering right there under the surface all along. Now I've tracked him down to Golfe Sainte-Juan. He's out of the service now with some engineering outfit. Anyway, I'm off to check in on him now. And don't even think about talking me out of it.
But there is one thing I've got ask you to do. There's no effort involved. Just call me at this number in exactly an hour and a half. You know, I'm not really asking. This is one of those few marriage times when I've got to tell you, 'Just make the call, or that's it for us.'"
"All right," she said, "but was there really a need to frame it exactly that way?" "There was a need. There was a need. Trust me," said Gribitz. "I have no time to go into any psychology with you. Just start twirling that dial in une heure et demie."
Gribitz drove for half an hour, checked his watch, and then stopped off at a roadside cafe to get 12 cooked snails to go. He was the only customer, and two restaurant troubadours asked if they could play and sing for him. "Look, I'm not in that kind of mood," he said. But he finally allowed them to do "Quando, Quando, Quando," a slow cha-cha popular in the States.
As they sang to him, he thought about the Air Force and the thing Carroll had done to him. Very simply, what happened was that Gribitz, on his second day as an officer in the Air Force, fresh from college, had been tossed into the thick of an experienced combat Air Force squadron of 250 men. One day, the entire squadron had been assembled for a weapons talk. Gribitz sat at the back of the auditorium, knowing nothing, scared out of his wits that momentarily he'd be unmasked as an idiot.
In the middle of the lecture, the phone rang, loud and clear, the speaker waiting for it to be answered. Gribitz, a few feet away from the phone, could think of no way in the world in which he could have assisted the caller, since there was nothing in the world he knew about the Air Force. So while the audience waited, he asked Carroll, who was then a master sergeant, to answer the phone. Carroll, after thinking it over for a second, said "No," with a queer little smile.
Gribitz sat up then. And with all 250 men looking on, he asked Carroll a second time to pick up the phone. "I said no," Carroll replied. And Gribitz, his collar suddenly strangling him, had run out of the auditorium on the fourth or fifth ring.
The proper procedure, of course, would have been to bring court martial charges against Carroll for disobeying a direct order. And Gribitz, however untutored he'd been at the time, at least knew this much. But he had been just as frightened of his immediate superior and a court martial procedure, as he was of master sergeants and telephones. Doing anything then had been out of the question.
Thinking about the incident now, he got a little hitch to his breath. It had stuck in his throat. And in many ways, it spoiled his entire service experience, just as meeting Carroll the previous night now threatened to upset him for weeks to come.
The troubadours ended their number. The snails arrived. And the check had an extra 20% added on for entertainment. "I just wish I had time to argue," he said as he paid the cashier. "I'd take you right down to the wire on that entertainment crap. I didn't ask for it. It wasn't entertaining."
He drove another 20 minutes or so. And after some muddling about in a cliffside community overhanging the waterfront, he found a house with the name Carroll out front. Mrs. Carroll answered the doorbell. And Gribitz said, "Hi, I'm Leroy Gribitz, and I'm here to do some business with your husband. And I brought you some cooked snails. They make them all over the country, I know that. But I think you'll find these have a little extra zip to them. I mean, that's been my experience. And you know, give some to the kids. Is your husband home?"
The woman called inside, then disappeared. And when the deep-seamed man came out, Gribitz said, "How are you doing, Carroll. I'm the guy who approached you last night at the cafe. And to get right down to it, I'm A02234907, Grange Air Force Base, 1951 to 1953, the young kid adjutant of squadron 4507 who you did that thing to."
Carroll, who was wearing rimless Ben Franklin glasses coming into vogue on the Cote D'Azur, took them off his nose, stroked his chin, and said, "You know, I think I do remember. Young kid comes into the squadron, never done a lick of military and comes in as an officer yet." "The very kid," said Gribitz. "And while you're unwinding the spool, see if you can remember the little business you pulled on me that I'm here for now, 15 years later, about the telephone."
"I do remember that thing," said Carroll, taking a seat at a dinette arrangement. "You mean when the phone rings, and it's clearly the duty of the officer in charge to pick it up, and you expected me, a master sergeant with 12 years duty on you, to do your dirty work for you, and I wouldn't?"
"That's the time, all right. You disgraced me, pure and simple, in front of 250 guys I could never look in the face again. You fouled up my whole time in the service. I don't think I got one good night of Air Force sleep. And don't think I didn't think about it plenty after my discharge. The thing is, it's 15 years later. We're both here in this house. And we're playing that little scene again, only with a different ending.
In 20 minutes to the second, that phone is going to ring. And when it does, you're going to be the one to answer it." "I always answer the phone when it rings," said Carroll, beginning to pick his teeth. "Look, now don't be any wise bastard," said Gribitz, "or you'll be hearing an entirely different kind of ring. You know damn well what I mean.
I've got that phone set up to ring in 20 minutes. It's no ordinary phone call. It's the same one from the squadron 15 years ago. We both hear it, and you're the one that makes a grab for it, not me this time.
And before you make any smart-ass comments, let me tell you why you're going to pick it up and not me. I mean, I may look the same as I did 15 years ago-- the same general body outline and all. But actually, I'm like four of what I was. I've been working out like a madman. The point is, I can get things done now, just about anything, anything I want, if I concentrate hard enough. How do you think I pulled off this trip? I set my sails for it and bulled it through with sheer willpower."
"All right," said Carroll. "When does it ring?" "I told you when," said Gribitz. "When I said is when. You never should have done that thing to me."
The phone rang, and Carroll, after flicking at some rear molars, picked up the phone casually and said, "Carroll speaking. Who's this?" He listened for a while and then said, "OK, make it chopped steak instead of cotelette d'agneau." "That was the butcher," said Carroll, laying down the receiver. "All right, forget that," said Gribitz, checking his watch. "Our call has another five minutes to go."
"Look," said Carroll. "Why don't I just go beep, beep beep, pick it up, OK? We've got the show packed up, and we get out of here." "Well, that'll be the day," said Gribitz. "I'll bet you'd just love to pull something like that on me."
They sat together in silence, and after two minutes, the phone rang again. "Carroll here, answering the phone as ordered," he said. He held the receiver aside and said to Gribitz, "Now you want me to just gab for a while?" "No," said Gribitz. "Just what you did does it." "Signing off," said Carroll, and laid down the receiver.
Gribitz, who hadn't realized how hard he'd been breathing, pulled out a handkerchief and pulled it across his brow. "Well, that's done," he said. "And what's done is done." "Yup," said Carroll. "You been here long?" asked Gribitz. "Ah, a year," said Carroll. "Do your kids have anyone to play with?" "They do alright," said Carroll. "Well, maybe they could come over and play with mine. Boy, wouldn't that be a hell of a turn?
Look, all of this was just something I had to get out of my system. I know a little bit about myself. If I have something like that bothering me, it can throw off my entire life. It's just like a splinter. You know the kind of grief that can give you? I mean, am I getting through to you at all?" "I guess," said Carroll, waiting with his hand on the door.
"Look, when I saw you, I knew I wasn't going to be able to relax until I'd come over here and gotten the damn thing done. I mean, now that it's done, to me, it's as if nothing happened. What I'm getting at is it was nothing personal. I mean, do you see that at all?"
"I don't see much of anything," said Carroll, opening the door for Gribitz to leave. "All right. I'm going to get you for this," said Gribitz, taking his coat, "for what you're doing right now. I don't care if it takes another 15 years. I mean, you can hide in the goddamned mountains of Tibet. I'll smoke you out, and I'll beat your head 'til you're bloody, because you have gone and spoiled my whole European vacation, you son of a bitch."
Bruce Jay Friedman's story, "The Humiliation," can be found in a book that is called, simply enough, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman. He has a new book coming out in September called Sexual Pensees.
Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself with Alex Blumberg, Blue Chevigny, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer, Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Annie Baxter, Seth Lind and Sativa January. Musical help from Terry Hecker.
Nancy Updike's story was produced partly with funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of hearingvoices.com. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. You know, you can download today's program at our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia, who I just ran into in the hallway. It was weird. He said--
Oh, no. I can't believe you're here today.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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