Transcript

234:

Say Anything
Transcript

Originally aired 03.14.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/234

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So Neil Chesanow, do you have a copy of your book, Please Read This For Me, there with you?

Neil Chesanow

Yes I do, right in my greasy little claw.

Ira Glass

Perfect. Can I ask you to open up just to the opening page of the preface to read from the preface?

Neil Chesanow

"When you have something very important but really tough to tell the man in your life, wouldn't it be great if you could just reach for a book that starts the conversation for you? Imagine being able to turn to the appropriate page, give an open book to the man you love and ask, 'Please read this for me.' 'What is it?' 'Just read it, OK? Page 73. It's only a few lines.' Once the man you love has the book in his hands, a glance will do the job. Each page is an emotional telegram."

Ira Glass

Neil Chesanow's book is now long out of print. But back in the 1980s when it was published, it represented I think, a kind of utopian, endgame for what self-help books could accomplish. Instead of explaining in a general way how you should handle this situation or that situation in your life, the book Please Read This To Me cut to the chase, went to the next logical step. It actually gave you a script. You're in this situation? Say this. Here are the actual words you can use to kick off the conversation you need to have.

Neil Chesanow

I tried to come up with a book that would not just tell you how to communicate but actually spark conversation.

Ira Glass

Let me just read some of these titles to give people a sense of what some of these are like. Page 111, "It's time to admit you don't have a drinking problem. You're an alcoholic." Page 82, "You act like Cary Grant in public and Archie Bunker at home." Page 134, "I think about marriage all the time." Page 148, "Maybe I'm not ready to have a baby." Page 136, "You'd probably prefer if I were an orphan." Let me ask you to read the one on page 135.

Neil Chesanow

OK. This one is entitled, "It could be that I'm falling out of love." A difficult subject. "Once I thought I loved you. Now I'm not so sure. Yes, we've changed over time, but that's only part of it. I feel confused. I don't know what I feel. One minute I say to myself, stick it out. Make it work. Don't be a quitter. And I feel guilty. It's not in my power to change you. That much I've learned. So I'm giving some serious thought to the only alternative left that I can think of, a trial separation. If you have another suggestion, I'd like to hear it.

Ira Glass

Over and over in this book, Chesanow and his co-author Gareth Esersky take some of the most painful situations that people can have with each other and give surprisingly graceful, one-minute speeches that a person could say or write or show to somebody else. There are a dozen about problems people might have together in bed. Ten are about dealing with each other's friends. Ten are about the fights that couples have over money. One of the entries even ends with the sentence, "Let's become husband and wife." All of these are written for women because, Chesanow says, men don't buy these books.

Neil Chesanow

We specifically interviewed women to come up with the most difficult kinds of subjects to discuss.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to read another one.

Neil Chesanow

I'd be happy to.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to read on page 105.

Neil Chesanow

This one is titled, "Let's get religion." "There's something missing in our lives. We're so focused on relating to each other that we've overlooked an important aspect of relating to our world. I'm talking about religion, spirituality, God. A belief in God and a spiritual life can add--

Ira Glass

When you read one of these after another, the book as a whole seems to have this almost touching faith in the idea that getting the words right might actually solve something or help something. But of course if you want religion in your life and your partner doesn't, or if you think you've fallen out of love, or if you don't want a baby and your spouse does, I have to say, your main problem is not what words to use. Your main problem is the situation itself. Neil Chesanow says that plenty of times he heard from women who used the words in the book, and it didn't fix the problem.

Neil Chesanow

So there may not be magic words. There aren't always magic words. But sometimes that in itself becomes something vital for a woman to understand. I mean now she can tell herself, well, you know I really have given it my best shot. This message, and please read this for me, really sums up my feelings. He's still not willing to respond. I think we're reaching one of those landmark moments where we have to decide whether we want to go on or not.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to today's radio program. Today, we bring you stories that ask the question, what is talking good for anyway? When does it work? When doesn't it work? From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Radio Public International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in four acts.

Act One, How to Write a Note. In that act, a guy who thinks that words and reason might help his friend from trying to hurt himself. Act Two, The Battle of Words Versus Fear. In that act, one man decides to conquer his fears by listing them, all of them, one after another, all 183 of them. Act Three, When a City Opens Its Big Mouth. The story of just how easy, how astonishingly easy it is to get people of all ages and races and economic levels to open up and chat. You just need three little words. Act Four, Wedding Bells and Telephone Bells. In that act, Jonathan Goldstein and Liz Gilbert bring us stories of words failing, in one case in the worst wedding toast that any of us has ever heard of occurring at a real wedding. Stay with us.

Act One. How To Write A Note.

Ira Glass

Act One. This first story on our show today is very unusual. It wasn't originally made to be broadcast on any radio show. It was a tape made by somebody who had never put anything together for radio. He made it to give to a friend. Here's what happened. Back in July of 1999, Jake Warga heard that somebody who he was close to back in college, his friend Brian, had tried to kill himself. Jake went out to visit Brian. And he took with him this mini-disk recorder that he had just bought for himself that had this little clip-on microphone.

During his visit with Brian, they recorded this long conversation that they had. And when Jake got back home, he decided to edit this down and give it to Brian as a present. He had no idea how to actually edit sound or do anything like that. So at some point he jumped onto the internet and found a website, one actually that we've mentioned on our show in the past called transom.org that teaches beginners how to edit and mix audio, has links to free editing software and all that kind of thing.

So Jake put together the story you're about to hear. And he sent it to Brian. His hope was that if Brian heard this tape, heard himself talking, heard his own words, it might convince him that he shouldn't try to kill himself again. That didn't work. Here's the tape that Jake put together.

Jake Warga

Last year my friend Brian tried to commit suicide. He had checked himself into a new hotel that runs alongside the interstate, which happens to pass through the small college town in which he lives. And without ceremony or note writing, he took a combination of drugs he thought sufficient enough to quietly end his life.

As people often do, Brian and I started getting lazy about communicating after I left college and moved out of that same college town. Emails became rare, and phone calls rarer. After the longest period yet of not hearing from Brian, I got a call from an old mutual friend of ours asking if I had seen or heard from him. I said I had not.

We made calls and eventually found him safe in the hospital. A few weeks later, I arranged a visit to see how my old school-- and Brian-- had changed in the years I had been away. And when I came to visit, we sat for three hours on a park bench late one summer night. He was still in the process of piecing together exactly what had happened. This is Brian.

Jake Warga

Let's talk about you.

Brian

There's not much to talk about.

Jake Warga

You were going to go to the hospital today, right?

Brian

Yeah I did. The woman in the records department made a photocopy of my medical records from when I got admitted. And there wasn't anything too surprising or anything in there. But it was still interesting to read. But they said I was discovered at approximately 6:00 PM. I guess this was the next day.

Jake Warga

6:00 PM?

Brian

Yeah I don't know why--

Jake Warga

They waited so long?

Brian

Yeah, because I should have checked out around noon I guess. But they said I was unconscious and unresponsive. I was reading the paramedics report. And I was pale, cold and clammy. And I was breathing only six respirations per minute, which is very slow. And they said they found pill bottles and a bottle of alcohol in the room. And they cleared my airway and started administering oxygen. Then they gave me a two milliliters IV of something called Narcan, which is an antidote for opiates like morphine.

Jake Warga

Do you think it would have worked?

Brian

I think it would have. And I mean maybe I didn't take enough. Because I mean, morphine is very serious. It's very hard core. It's very easy to OD on it. It's hard core, man. And I guess it was like really late that night, or even early the next morning, when I guess they were about to transfer me and I woke up. And the attendant who wrote this report said that I said I was disappointed to be alive, and that I had passed out before I could take the morphine.

And that part I do remember really vaguely. I remember waking up and feeling the nasal canula in my nose giving me oxygen. And seeing the IV bottle hovering over me. And the guy asked me kind of sarcastically it sounded, "So are you glad to be alive?" And I'm pretty sure I remember saying no.

Jake Warga

Brian doesn't have that many friends. He's good looking and funny, yet something inside prevents him from being confident in social skills. For example, it took a long time in our friendship before he told me, and I felt confident in asking, about his biological mother. He told me she died when he was young, that she had committed suicide. His father remarried soon after and raised Brian and his brother, who is now a doctor.

Brian

Although there would seem to be some incongruities with the reports. I guess those paramedics and hospital staff can really hastily fill stuff out. They can really take a lot of license. My own mom's coroner's report was really-- it had some gross inconsistencies in it or errors. My brother says coroners often just make stuff up if they can't find certain causes, like cause of death I guess.

Jake Warga

Were you hoping to find similarities between your mom's report and your report?

Brian

Oh, no. I hadn't really thought of that. I brought her up just because they made some errors on hers, just like they had with mine. But with me I don't think it was anything really major.

Jake Warga

About a week prior to this interview, Brian was arrested in San Francisco for possession of narcotics. Brian does not use drugs or alcohol. He had gone to the same bad part of town to buy the same drugs with the intent of trying again. I asked him about this trip to San Francisco.

Jake Warga

What were you doing there?

Brian

Same thing.

Jake Warga

Same cocktail?

Brian

Pretty much.

Jake Warga

But it didn't work before.

Brian

I'm too much of a wimp to try other things, like other things that might be more violent but less immediate. I don't like violence in practice.

Jake Warga

I've read that suicide is a selfish act, yet I've never really thought of Brian as selfish. But I can understand why the relatives of suicide victims might go through that angry phase, that phase when they place the blame on the person who killed themselves, to help with any feelings of guilt they might have. I asked Brian if he thought what he did was selfish.

Brian

I'd say it's selfish in the same sense that going to a therapist is selfish. You have a problem and you're doing something about it. You're doing something about it in the way you feel like coping with it. I don't think in the end people should live for other people. They should really live for themselves. Just like you shouldn't go to school for a decade to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever just because your parents want you be that. Because you want to do it, your parents want you to do it. You should live your life as you want, as you see fit.

And it doesn't necessarily mean you haven't considered other people's reactions. It just means that maybe you have, and you've decided that unfortunately, you still want to go forward with it. I mean I don't want to spend the rest of my life alive and miserable just because someone else doesn't want me to die. I don't see much sense to that.

Jake Warga

In an effort to catch up on letter writing, Brian would occasionally write long emails filled with wit, humor and sometimes desperation. He's an excellent writer. I asked him why he didn't write a suicide note.

Brian

Yeah I'll admit that was rather selfish. I mean I know that people were wondering what the heck is up. I could have sat down for probably what would have been several hours to type something up. I just really, at that point in time, I was just very fed up and impatient and just wanted it all to end. I just didn't want to screw around with anything else. I could have also cleaned my room first too.

Jake Warga

As we were talking, an ambulance passed by in no particular hurry.

Brian

There's what I probably rode in. Cost over $800 to be transported from--

Jake Warga

A few blocks?

Brian

Yeah, according to their timetable it took them eight minutes to get from there to there.

Jake Warga

I guess that's pretty [INAUDIBLE].

Brian

Yeah that's an appreciable distance I guess. It's worth eight minutes. Two milligrams, two tiny milligrams of Narcan opiate antidote is $6.

Jake Warga

As I write this, I wonder if I'm making Brian's note for him. Am I documenting this story for him, or for whom he might leave behind? This was not the first he tried committing suicide. And in light of his recent arrest, not his last.

Jake Warga

Do you think you found the only way to cope?

Brian

The only viable way, so to speak. I don't get the impression most people are that happy anyway. They just grind their way through life. And they'll have kids and that'll give them an artificial reason to live for a while. And then the kids grow up and forget about them. I know the mind is a really powerful thing. People can do just about anything they really put their minds to. But it also takes a tremendous amount of self-motivation. As my therapist says, it has to come from within. And there doesn't feel like there's much within, you know?

Jake Warga

What's your relationship with death?

Brian

I was brought up in a Protestant family as a Lutheran. And I haven't renounced that faith. I just feel I've stumbled in a big way. And I haven't gotten up. Or haven't been able to get up. And I'm hoping that I'll just go to heaven after I die. But of course there is a lingering fear of hell because it's highly stigmatized, suicide.

But I don't think I believe in sins that are, what do you call, cardinal? I think it's just another kind of sin. My cousin Amy, who's an atheist, told me that her dad, who's a Lutheran minister, told her that if you kill yourself you go to hell because you're not alive to repent and ask forgiveness for that sin. So therefore, since you have not repented for that sin, you'll go to hell. And I think that's ridiculous. I mean think of all the sins you haven't repented for in your life even if you tried to. And I know you haven't tried to but-- So I do have a fear of dying, but it doesn't always outweigh my other fears or my other--

Jake Warga

Fear of living?

Brian

Yeah.

Jake Warga

After sitting at a park bench for so long, and after Brian confessed to having talked more than he ever has, we were more than overdue for a stretch. And after a while of walking around aimlessly, we picked up our old habit of trainspotting and penny smashing.

[TRAIN SOUND]

Brian

Geez. I would have loved to-- I probably shouldn't run with this thing. I don't know if it can record while being jostled.

Jake Warga

It'll catch up.

Brian

We are now running to try to catch the train. We are running past lions. We're now up on the tracks. Here come the lights.

Jake Warga

At this point, Brian and I are running alongside the train as it's beginning to stop at the nearby station.

[MUSIC - "JUMPER" BY THIRD EYE BLIND]

[TRAIN SOUND]

Jake Warga

Well, train's here. No pennies.

Brian

Oh brother. I have a penny or two. You give it up homeboy.

I don't know. Anything else?

Jake Warga

Do you ever cry?

Brian

No. Hardly remember the last time. It's probably been almost ten years. Came close though in December of '92 when I came home after visiting my grandma over Christmas time when my grandma had showed us a bunch of pictures of my biological mom and told us some stories about her. There were photos I don't think I'd ever seen and stories I don't think I'd ever heard. So I came home, and I was taking a shower late that night. And while I was in the shower, I really wept just a little bit, but it wasn't really full-fledged.

I feel like I'm emotionally constipated. I guess that's a major part of my problem. People need to express their anger and whatever else they're feeling. I've actually tried to. I've tried because I knew I wanted the release because I knew it would feel good. But I just couldn't do it, very frustrating.

Jake Warga

We're in the last nine minutes of this cassette.

Brian

Oh there's nine more minutes.

Jake Warga

I want it to be over now.

Brian

I can't think of anything else to say. I'm not the kind of guy who can just rattle off his famous last words or big words of advice. I guess I'd say don't have kids unless you had a good relationship with your own parents I guess. Because you can seriously screw them up by saying negative things to them or even neglecting them. Apparently that's a highly debated cause of sudden infant death syndrome, not giving your baby enough physical attention.

One of my psychiatrists said I'm failing to thrive. That's a phrase commonly used for infants who mysteriously die. I'm thinking-- I just kind of amuse myself with the thought that my case is a belated case of sudden infant death syndrome.

I don't think my dad failed as a parent as he worries that he has. He's just-- I think he did a great job. It's just along the way, I contracted a disease and it doesn't have a very optimistic or bright prognosis. And not even the best parent can prevent that.

Jake Warga

At the end of editing this story, Brian is still alive, living in the same small town. I don't know if he's getting better or not.

Ira Glass

Jake Warga. He sent this tape to his friend Brian in 1999, and he waited for a reaction. Brian emailed him. He wrote, "How did you learn about the music you included in the interviews? I especially like the Moby pieces. But don't you think those solemn, dirge-like harmonies might be a tad over-dramatic?" Brian wanted to know if Jake's computer had a filter that could make him sound, quote "like less of a retard."

Brian also asked Jake if he had any plans to publish the story. He told Jake that he thought that Jake would have an easier time publishing it if he were dead. Nearly two years later in the spring of 2001, Brian did try to kill himself again. And this time he succeeded. Jake added this epilogue to the story.

Jake Warga

On May 9 of this year, Brian's body was found in his room. He had injected himself with a lethal dose of morphine. He was 31 years old. I had sent this tape to Brian sometime after our interview in hopes that by hearing himself, like looking long and hard into a mirror, he would realize what he was saying, that he would snap out of it. Though he appreciated my efforts, I did not change him. And I came closer to realizing I never could.

Brian left packets for a few people, myself included. In them were copies of letters he wrote years before explaining some of what he felt at the time and tapes of the interview we did that night. He actually had to make cassette copies for his brother and cousin from the mini-discs that I sent him. I've had to ask myself, now that's Brian's dead, why do I want to share this tape? One reason is I want to take something from death, to rob it for a little while, of the mute it imposes. I also hope that it might help someone who feels like Brian. Or, for friends and family left confused, some sense of closure they may not have had if death were allowed its silence.

So Brian, I'm relieved your pains are over. And now it's time for ours to begin. You will be missed.

Ira Glass

Jake Warga in Seattle. Thanks to Jay Allison and transom.org and KUOW in Seattle, where Brian's story has appeared.

[MUSIC "I SEE A DARKESS" BY BONNIE PRINCE BILLY]

Coming up, three magic words that make tough New Yorkers chat like schoolgirls. And I'm not talking about "I love you," or "hand it over," or "yes you've won." Also your fears listed, in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. The Battle Of Words Vs Fear.

Ira Glass

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, What's Talking Good For Anyway, stories about what talking can accomplish and what it cannot. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two The Battle of Words Versus Fear.

Michael Bernard Loggins is in his 40s. He's developmentally disabled. He lives in San Francisco. And he says there are certain things that he is afraid of, that just put him on edge. And one day he felt like he needed to write them down, to get them out of his system. And so he started writing, numbering each fear. And it quickly got to 10, then to 20, then to 30 and 40 and 50 until he had 138 of them.

The arts program for adults where he did this, a place called Creativity Explored, published the writing as a little handwritten, xeroxed zine titled "Fears of your Life." A few years later, Michael found that there were more fears to tame by turning them into words. He put out a part two titled "Fears of Your Life, a Whole Brand New One." This one listed 45 fears. Michael give us permission to excerpt the two books, which we do now. Actor Tom Wright is our reader.

Tom Wright

Fear of hospitals and needles. Fear of school and dentists. Fear of noises and bumps in the middle of the night. Fear of doors when they slams. Fear of toys that come on by itself without anyone touching it. Fear of being caught with another woman after cheating on your wife. Fear of being in wrong places at the wrong time. Fear of dropping your soda as it hit the ground and fizz on you. Fear of tall giraffes. Fear of some birds. Fear of being different.

I fear that those TV people would take off my favorite cartoon, The Rugrats, off the air and wouldn't be able to watch them anymore for a long, long, long time. Please let well enough alone. Please don't take my Rugrats cartoon off the air because I love that cartoon. Let there be a possibility that life with The Rugrats stays put, means leave my Rugrats cartoon on TV, Michael said.

Fear if you put things that doesn't belongs in your ears and you bust the drums that's in your ears it liable to run you deaf where you can't hear anything at all. You wouldn't be able to hear cars when they're coming at you. That can be a frightening and very horrible situation to happen to you if you had an occurrence in real life, especially if you comes involved in it. Can you get hit by cars if you can't hear them?

Michael is afraid and frightening and fearful when Andrea Sheer goes away for a very, very, very long, long, long, long vacational trips in order to go traveling all over the world, almost like different places in different cities and countries to visit people in her own image and own language. He afraid Andrea Sheer would come back to San Francisco, California, with all different accents and won't be able to speak Michael's English. Or not be able to understand his words that he's telling her, like Merry Christmas.

I'm afraid and fearful that pigeons don't know right from wrong to not go out into the street. They don't have the kind of memory as we humans does to know what to do and what shall not do. They must don't know the danger of their lives are being jeopardized. And they must don't know what can definitely happen to them to humans' knowledges and sense. They land just anywhere they can find and land on surface.

Fear of sharks. Fear of giant man. Fear of gorilla. Fear of Godzilla. Fear of tall woman. Fear of killer whales. Fear of dinosaurs, bird. Fear of invisible man. Fear of Blob. Fear that if I go into the library and I happens to get like seven or eight books, and I happens to find a place in the library that I would get a lot of comfortable and begin reading in those seven or eight books, but one book at a time. And I start to read, and somehow my voice and mind start to get from low to high. And thinking that there weren't anyone else's reading theirs. And I look over and the people in the library, and I get fearful. And I would say, "Oops, sorry."

If your friends are people that you are with and you hear them making decision about what they decided that they are going to steal, expensive and very valuable merchandise out of the department stores and don't care less, you say I am out of here. Bye bye. I'm not getting caught in your crazy schemes. I'm not your stealing partner. I'm just your friend. It's going to trouble, and it's on your head, not mine. I'm not going to participate in stealing with you. So leave me out of your crazy schemes, especially if it involves Oreo cookies and other stuff, hot stuff. Fear of me getting in trouble just as well.

It's very scary and fearfully to be sleeping in your bed in the middle of the night whenever there's a telephone right beside the bed on your left near the door you once enter and exit out. You are sleeping. The telephone rang and scared the living life out of you in the middle of the night. Who is this calling at this hour of the night?

Fear of a blasted music on the radio when you are not aware that the volume is turned up. Fear of rolling downhill backwards. Fear of fog horns. Fear of getting hugged by somebody you don't like. There's Los Angeles fears. Fear of getting hit over the head when you carry lots of dough with you, or bucks.

Fear is like this. Someone like a woman that you grab a hold of her hand and going down the escalator when of a sudden you happens to be holding a stranger hand not realizing that she isn't your mother. Is scary. Fear that if you put too much of toilet paper in the toilet bowl it will run over and get all over the floor and on you and on someone else too. It would leak from upstairs to the next floor below.

I'm afraid some day I liable to get lost inside Children's Hospital if I'm not all so familiar with that place yet. It's going to take some time to get used to it. Fearful of that great big, humongous Children's Hospital there ever would be to Michael's knowledge. Good that Michael's sister is driving him up there on Tuesday, January 15, 2002. Even though she's with him, she can easily get lost too. Bad situation to tangled up in, especially if you that person has an appointment at 10:45 AM in the morning. Michael Bernard Loggins does.

Michael feared that if his teacher Francis doesn't put away Michael's top ramen noodles up in the desk drawer, that Douglas will see it and he'll liable to want to take it. And he'll happen to eat up Michael Bernard Loggins' noodles himself. And Michael Bernard Loggins would be out of luck, but he would have to go home tonight and bring back to school another pack of noodles to eat himself so that wouldn't ever, ever happened with that Douglas eat up noodle story.

It would be very fearful if I reached up on top shelf trying to reach for a nice sticker-covered dictionary book and not ask for help from someone. And the books come off the shelf and make lots of noises. And the people gets angry at me and don't understand that I had wanted help but I were afraid to ask for it and they'd be a jerk or a creep as Hope tells me. And people say that I'll have to pay for the shelf. And I get in lots of trouble behind it, says Michael.

Fear of being with a friend that you have recently met, start to take you places with him and you doesn't know him all that well. You didn't know that he were going to bring you fear and lots of trouble your way. Someone you doesn't know all that well starts to carry you in the store to buy you and him something to eat and drink, and all of a sudden something very fishy starts to happen. Like for instance your friend that you are with could be up to trouble, and whoever with him could be heading in for trouble as well, especially if a friend of yours could be bringing you trouble by stealing a big package of Oreo cookie.

People are fearful of me, which I wonder is they think I'm all that terrible? Or I'm thinking that they think I'm not human at all. Because when they sit next to me, then they get back up and move away from me. I may be a stranger, but that doesn't make me a created monster or something like that. People aren't humans. They act like ignorance dogs with their tail in back of their legs or in between their middle bodies their legs. They don't think whose feeling they hurt at all. They just do it. No consideration for whatsoever. People don't think about how they hurt my feelings or don't give a hoot. They don't give a crap.

Fear you never known you were going to lose your mother is very sad and scary experience you have to face and learn from. And you wonder why she has to die. I love her. And I had loved her once while she were alive, especially if she was the mother that raised you and the others through birth. And you only wish that you could had done all you can to help save her life. They're going to be a worse times and hard times for Michael Bernard Loggins and his sisters and brothers too, especially when Mother's Day comes. Afraid this is the last thing that ever occur to me.

Ira Glass

Excerpts from Michael Bernard Loggins' two xeroxed zines, "Fears of Your Life," Parts One and Two. Read for us by Tom Wright, a film actor in Los Angeles. To get your own copy of these amazing books, or to find out more about the arts program where they were made, visit the website of creativity explored, which is simply enough www.creativityexplored.org. Or if somehow you cannot remember that, find our radio show on the web and that will get you there.

[MUSIC - "HE'S REALLY SAYING SOMETHING" BY BANANARAMA]

Act Three. When A City Opens Its Big Mouth.

Ira Glass

Act Three, When A City Opens Its Big Mouth. For months, Liz Berry and Bill Weitzel have been going out in the streets, seven days a week, 12 or 13 hours a day in any kind of weather with a handmade sign that says "Talk to me."

Bill

Hello.

Man 1

What's this?

Bill

Just being friendly.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's a relief to see just how wary people are of being scammed. Nearly every person who approaches them asks the same question in one form or another. Are you taking money? Are you with some organization? Are you doing this for TV or something? In other words, as one Chinese woman put it--

Woman 1

Who are you and what for?

Bill

I'm Bill and that's Liz. And it's just the two of us.

Ira Glass

Here they are, people who decided that it might be nice if strangers would just interact a little more. And they were going to take matters into their own hands and see that it happen. Even though it pays no money, even though it means camping on peoples' couches, even though they end up acting like cheerful customer service representatives to a largely indifferent world one exhausting hour after another.

Bill

We just put up this sign and anything people want to talk about, we'll go with it.

Man 2

Sign?

Ira Glass

Liz is 25, Bill is 23, but they each use the kind of vernacular that you'd expect from an 80 year old woman. They call men fellas. And instead of using the word ass or bum to describe the part of the body that you sit on, they favor the word patooti. They smile easily. They look young and vulnerable and almost overwhelmingly earnest. That kind of thing either works for you or it doesn't. And for them, apparently, it does. People talk to them. The sign does its job. Two plainclothes cops approach, and the one in the wraparound sunglasses talks first.

Cop 1

This girl I've been going out with for two years just got engaged to some dude after dating him for four weeks.

Liz

Did you think she was just spending your time? Did you think she was stringing you along? Do you think she didn't love you?

Cop 1

Yeah, sure, for like the last six months, yeah. Nice, right?

Liz

Did you know?

Cop 1

No, I had no idea.

Ira Glass

In the course of this one day in New York City, Liz and Bill chat with a teenager from Laguardia High School who's all excited about the fake country she and her friends had made up. There was a drunk guy carrying bags full of brand new computer equipment who talked about how much money he's making. A woman who just quit the AmeriCorps program hours before because it seemed too dangerous and they wouldn't even give her a phone.

There was a guy in Harlem who fixed up two of the patients in the optometrist's office where he works. A woman who was mad at the teacher who hit her son in school. A well-dressed man who explained the intricacies of estate tax assessment. And there was this guy, who walked up to Liz and Bill right after being let go from his job.

Man 2

They brought me into an office, and they just said "As you know, things have been very slow. And I really don't know how to tell you this. And I mean you've been great. It's not a firing. It's purely economic-based." But I feel like-- have you ever been laid off or fired?

Bill

Yes.

Man 2

You know that blank feeling you get right here.? It's just like oh my god.

Bill

Do you have any kind of savings? Are you in a rent stabilized place?

Man 2

Yeah, I'm in a rent stabilized place.

Ira Glass

As conversationalists, Bill and Liz are perfectly fine, no better or worse than you or me. But mostly what they do is keep the ball rolling. Watching all this for several hours, it makes you start to see everyone on the street differently. Everyone starts to seem like he or she could suddenly burst into a story. The whole city seems filled with people who need to get something off their chest.

Man 3

At this point it's also like I want just some more stability in my life. And my birthday is next week. I'm going to be 39 years old.

Ira Glass

At the end of the day, a man talks to them for three hours, three hours, mostly about a girlfriend he lost whom he can't get over. But also about the war, and the time years ago he tried to kill himself. By the end, it was one in the morning. And he offered Liz and Bill $100 dollars, which they turned down. Liz was still full of energy, completely cheery. It seemed like she could go for another three hours. But it was late, and the streets were clearing. And it was time to go home.

[MUSIC - "TALK TO ME" BY HEATHER NOVA]

Act Four. Wedding Bells And Door Bells.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Wedding Bells and Telephone Bells. Well, we end our program today with two brief case studies of situations where the words for something don't even matter, where it's not about the words at all. We begin with this one from Elizabeth Gilbert.

Elizabeth Gilbert

My friend Kevin once attended a wedding where he heard the world's most inappropriate wedding toast. The toast began inauspiciously enough. The best man stood up during the meal, clinked his knife against the crystal, and the other guests all quieted down. "I was thinking on the airplane ride here about what I was going to say today about Danny and Joyce," the best man began. "And all I could think at first was what a happy day today is." Good enough start. But then the speech took an interesting turn. "And I realized that what I really wanted to talk about this afternoon is jury duty."

"Now I don't know how many of you have ever served on a jury," he went on, "but it's a fascinating process. I was just on a jury last year for the first time in my life, and I learned a lot about myself and about the legal system. It was a pretty serious case too. It was actually a murder trial. It was very tragic. It was this old man who got killed, very sad. He was getting money out of an ATM in the middle of the day and some gang kids came up and robbed him and shot him right in the face."

By now many of the wedding guests were lowering their champagne glasses gently back down to the table. "It was a cut and dried case really," he went on. "There were plenty of witnesses and the forensic evidence pointed straight to one kid as the shooter. The kid was definitely guilty, but here's the thing. It was actually a capital offense. And my jury had to decide whether or not to give this kid the death penalty."

"Now I don't if any of you have ever had to decide whether somebody should live or die, but it's emotionally intense. We all knew the kid was guilty, but the death penalty is nothing to take lightly. In the end though, we decided yes, this kid needs to die. And we sent him to his death."

The tent was silent. The bride, ashen. The best man took a moment to compose himself and concluded, "That was probably the worst day of my life. And I got to thinking about it on the plane because that day was nothing like today, which is a happy day, a really happy day. So here's to Danny and Joyce." Thus concluded the toast.

I've pondered the meaning of this story for years, and ultimately I've decided that I get it. I've heard it said before that the human psyche cannot always tell the difference between good events and bad events. All we can feel is the tremor of the Earth, which is what happened to our best man, I believe. He was so overcome by happiness for his friend, and he was so out of touch with his emotions, that he couldn't express that happiness appropriately. All he could do was remember the last time he had felt so moved by something. And so he tried to express that.

Sure there's nothing parallel about an old man getting shot in the face and a dear friend getting married, unless of course, you measure human emotion by the weight, in which case the two events carry exactly the same impact. Which is to say that I think I finally understand what the best man was trying to convey that afternoon. And I raise my glass to the poor guy for his valiant and hopeless attempt to celebrate.

Ira Glass

Liz Gilbert is the author of The Last American Man. Her story first appeared on the website otherpeoplesstories.com. I sure am talking a lot about the internet today. Well we now move on to our next example of wordless communication, our very last example today, from Jonathan Goldstein.

Jonathan Goldstein

Hettie lives in the same building she grew up in, and I live with her. We're in an apartment two floors up from her dad. He's 78 years old and doesn't want to bother climbing up the stairs every time he wants her so he ends up usually just calling her on the phone. He calls anywhere from 20 to 30 times a day. The one thing he never wants is conversation.

Sometimes he calls to ask Hettie what time it is because he's too tired to get up and look for himself. Sometimes he calls to see what she's having for dinner. But most of the time, he calls and doesn't say a thing. Hettie he picks up the phone and only hears classical music playing, and she knows it's her dad with his kitchen radio on. Sometimes I walk into the living room and Hettie will be watching TV with a telephone cupped to her ear not saying a word. And I know she's on the phone with her dad, and that three floors down, he's sitting watching TV just as silently.

When our line is in use, the voice mail picks up. Hettie's father will leave a dozen messages in a row. The way we know it's him is that there are no words, just a click of the phone. After about ten minutes, the fact that he can't get through starts to drive him crazy. So he walks down to the buzzers by the building's main door and buzzes our apartment. The way he sees it, why should he have to walk up two flights of stairs when he could just walk down one?

The buzzer is like an amplified dentist's drill. And sometimes, when you're quiet, or deep in thought, the suddenness of it is like being goosed by something cold and metallic. It is the kind of sound that rats in lab experiments come to associate with a terrible, perhaps fatal error. When we hear the buzzer, we get off the internet or the telephone so that he could call. Even now it could buzz, you think to yourself. Or even now.

One day I didn't get off the internet quick enough, so he went back down to the buzzer, and this time he just leaned on it. I got off the line and Hettie phoned him. He wasn't answering. She yelled down the stairs, but still he would not stop. He was making a point. I am not exaggerating when I say that he kept the buzzer going for several minutes straight. And after awhile, you could hear layered fluctuations and subtle pitch blends. He was like Yoko Ono on that thing.

Hettie got on a chair and hit the box above the door with a hammer. The buzzing stopped. A few minutes later, her father called. "What was so important?" Hettie asked. Her father was quiet. Finally, he asked her if she knew what night the Oscars were on. Hettie told him that he had gone too far.

It made Hettie's father sad that our doorbell was gone. He suggested that he and Heddie get walkie talkies. I imagined them both, sitting in their separate kitchens, each eating a sandwich. And in between long silences, one of them uttering the occasional 10-4. Hettie refused the offer. "Fine," he said. "From now on I'll just go down into the basement and turn off the building's power two times really fast. I noticed where they keep the main switch the other day. That'll be the signal for you to free up the line."

Hettie told him that that would be the signal for her to move out. Now her father just comes up and knocks. He knocks in a particular way that I think is supposed to be a secret code. Often, after Hettie has answered the door, he just stands there in the doorway, looking at her uncertainly, sort of put upon that now that he's got her attention, he actually has to come up with something to say.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the author of the book Lenny Bruce Is Dead and host of the CBC radio program, Wiretap.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program produced today by Starlee Kine and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr and David Kestenbaum. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Katy Adone.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

[FUNDING CREDITS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who begs you, who implores you.

Tom Wright

Please don't take my Rugrats cartoon off the air because I love that cartoon.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "KNOCK THREE TIMES" BY TONY ORLANDO AND DAWN]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.