Transcript

257:

What I Should've Said
Transcript

Originally aired 01.16.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/257

Prologue.

Ira Glass

About a year and a half ago, when my mom was dying, I had this experience that I bring up here because I think it's so common.

She and I were in different cities, and I would go see her most weekends when she got sick. It was pretty clear she didn't have a lot of time left. And I kept thinking, we should be having these really big conversations. And I don't even know what it is that I wanted to talk about. It just seemed like anything that we needed to say to each other, we'd better say now before it was too late. But truthfully, it wasn't like we had big issues that needed to be resolving or anything like that. All that stuff had been done years ago.

And so I would go. And mostly what she wanted was just company. So we'd watch old movies, and we'd watch TV, and we'd play a little cards and chat about whatever small thing would come up. And at one level, this was fine. It was completely fine. It was fine. And like I say, it was what she wanted.

But at another level, I would sit there intermittently and secretly very anxious that I was wasting this time. That in 6 months or 2 years or 10 years, I was going to look back, and I was going to feel sorry that we had never talked about-- you know what? I didn't even know what we hadn't talked about. I don't know. Like who was her best friend in junior high school, or what her house was like when she was a little girl.

I have a friend whose father died not too long ago who told me, well, if nothing else, I should use this time to just ask all the questions about all those little stories that I think I might want to know some day. And we did talk about some of that stuff. There were some old stories that I never really had straight that now I know.

And there were a couple of times sitting on the couch in the middle of some long afternoon where I asked my mom, is there anything that you want to talk about? Is anything that we need to talk about? Anything we need to have resolved or that we need to discuss? And she asked me, why, in my 20s, pretty much through my entire 20s, I was so distant from the family. And I asked her about all the years that she and my dad completely disapproved of my career in public radio. And we talked about these things, we talked about them, I would say, for like, I want to say a total of, I don't know, three minutes. And that pretty much exhausted it as subjects. And then we moved onto the next thing, and that was that.

Since she died, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep waiting for the day that I'm going to be talking to somebody or reading something or watching TV, and suddenly I realize something that I want to ask my mom about. That suddenly I realize what we should have talked about during that stretch of all those weeks, what I should have said back then. I know it's going to happen, and the only question is, is it going to be tomorrow? Or is it going to be the next day? Or is it going to be next month? Or is it going to be next year?

I know that people have this kind of feeling about the living also. You know what I mean? They have this feeling about their living friends and relatives, that they wish that they could go back and have do-overs and say something better or say the thing that it took them a really long time to figure out needed to be said. And in my experience-- maybe I'm unusual-- but in my experience, people almost never go back to do that. Even when the people are alive. They never go back and straighten it out and say it.

Well, today on our radio program, we have stories about what it would mean to actually go back. What it would mean to finally say everything that you should have said at the time, but that most people never, ever do. We make an unscientific inquiry into that question.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in four time-traveling acts. Act One, Freeze Frame, in which Mr. Jonathan Goldstein, for once in his life, gets to suspend time itself, freeze the hands of time, and finally come up with the right thing to say in some situation.

Act Two, In The Bush Leagues. We hear the true story of a 20-something activist who heckled the President of the United States, years ago, and failed horribly. President Bush completely bested this guy, leaving him mulling it over late at night for years. Act Three, A Can of Worms. David Sedaris wishes that he could take back a wish in an act. Act Four, Life Sentence, in which the president of the Maryland State Senate, a veteran politician, talks about the off-the-cuff remark that many people say changed his life forever.

Stay with us.

Act One. Freeze Frame.

Ira Glass

Act One, Freeze Frame.

This is the sort of story that I think it's best to introduce the way that you would do a movie trailer. Ladies and gentlemen, if regret has a name-- a name, that is, besides regret-- that name is Jonathan Goldstein. Here he is, with some thoughts and a big plan to change things.

Jonathan Goldstein

Let me start by saying I have pretty much regretted every single thing that's ever come out of my mouth, from my bar mitzvah speech with its inordinate use of the word cherished, to the manner in which I recently responded to my dental hygienist when asked whether the office radio was on too loud. I said, no, it wasn't too loud. "In fact," I said, "it was totally cool." Lord knows where that came from. But once words are out there, they are out there, and there's nothing you can do about it.

There are moments where I have misspoken or somehow failed to live up to the occasion that I am capable of replaying in my mind, searching for what I should have said, even years later. These moments have attached themselves to my brain like frightened cats that resist prying. And my capacity for regretting them sometimes feels like the deepest, most enduring part of my personality.

Case in point: about 15 years ago, I was riding a train to Toronto with my girlfriend at the time, when she asked me if I could catch the porter's eye and ask him for a glass of 7UP. I didn't like the idea of bothering the train workers. As a group, they put forth a fair bit of gruff, and I did not like receiving the stuff. In fact, even a tiny little bit of gruff would be enough to ruin my weekend.

Still, she was my girlfriend, and they had just handed out salted peanuts, and a drink seemed like a pretty good idea. I would probably even end up taking a sip off of hers.

"Why don't you ask him," I said, offering a compromise. And by compromise, I meant I'd sit beside her pretending to be engrossed in a copy of Rolling Stone while she got yelled at.

"You should," she said. "You're the man."

She was right about that. I was the man. An 18-year-old man who was spending his first weekend out of town with a woman. When the porter, who must have easily been at least 75, came moseying by, I craned my head into the aisle and said, just like this, "E-- excuse me, but d-- do you think that maybe I could get a 7UP, please, when you get a chance, if that-- if that's possible?"

"I already gave you a drink," he said. "There is no second 7UP."

"No, no, you did," I said. "But that was before the peanuts. Now I need another. Peanuts will do that to a person. Ma-- make them thirsty. I'm-- I'm sorry."

People turned around and looked at me.

"There should be a drink before and after the peanuts," I said. "That would be so great. Don't you think that-- that might be a good idea, maybe?"

All the while as I spoke, my girlfriend sat beside me, falling slowly and imperceptibly more and more out of love with me.

When he placed the plastic cup of 7UP down on my tray, he told me hoped it would help me, "wash my nuts down."

That night in bed, I realized what I should have replied. "My nuts are washed, old timer. Don't worry about me." Several months later, daydreaming in class, I thought of this. I could have lifted up the cup in a toast and said, "To clean nuts." But at the time, all I could think to do was to look down at the tiny, effervescent world within my cup and say thanks. Within the month, my girlfriend and I would be history.

If I could stop time, I would not rob the Bank of England, nor would I spend probably more than an afternoon or two studying the hummingbird in mid-flight. I would use my power to freeze time just before I was about to open my mouth to speak. I would get up from wherever I was and pace. I would pace back and forth and perhaps drink a glass of cold water. And once I had crafted the perfect response and steadied my nerves, I would unfreeze time and continue.

Of course, one cannot stop time, but one can stop tape. As an exercise in getting things right, I decided to go through one entire day tape-recording all of my interactions. That way, when the day was over, I would be able to go back over all of my conversations. And by stopping the tape and inserting the right words, I would be able to make everything, finally and for once, perfect. Lord knows saying the right words to people's faces would be far too frightening, but right here, behind their backs on the radio, that would be just right.

So in the morning, I had to go by to my friend Mary's house to babysit her kids. Helen is four, and Katie is two.

Helen

Silly Johnny.

Katie

Silly Johnny.

Jonathan Goldstein

This is what the kids do every time they see me. They start chanting. They chant, "Silly Johnny." For them, that is my name. It is what they call me. Silly Johnny.

Helen And Katie

Silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly Johnny.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK, hold it right here. There they stand, frozen like porcelain figurines, their mouths frozen wide open, their heads thrown back in cruel delight. And this is what I should have said. I am not the silly one, baby Katie. I could sit down to watch Apocalypse Now with a plate of spicy chicken wings and beer without getting all scarred for life. And I do not have to wear diapers, unless, of course, I choose to. And Helen, can you walk out the door anytime you want, go to an ATM machine, and put a down payment on a leather couch? I don't think so. So who's really silly?

Instead, I said this.

Helen And Katie

Silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly Johnny.

Jonathan Goldstein

As you could hear, I said nothing.

Helen

Silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly John, silly Johnny, silly Johnny, silly--

Jonathan Goldstein

Mary runs a profitable fancy soap shop, and she's been looking for a part-time employee for months. And every time she starts in about how hard it is to find good help these days, I always tell her how I'd be available to work in the store a few afternoons a week. And then Mary will suddenly remember something she left in the oven. Or she'll change the subject by complimenting me on the sporty-looking jersey I'm wearing, which, truthfully, is not sporty at all or for that matter, even a jersey, unless an undershirt can be called a jersey.

Having most of the morning to watch the kids and brood, I decided that when Mary got back, I was going to broach the subject straight on.

Jonathan Goldstein

How come you won't have me work for you? You know I would be a good employee, right?

Mary

No, you wouldn't be a good employee.

Jonathan Goldstein

Now, you see, most people would just drop the subject right here. But I am not most people.

Jonathan Goldstein

You really feel that way?

Mary

Yes. The first thing is, you pay no attention. You're completely spaced-out. Plus, you look a little bit ratty, and I think that the women who are coming in to ask you advice about fragrance and the different soaps and how well they wash, I don't think you look the type that would be able to give them some good advice. And you don't follow direction. And you can't multitask.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK, stop the tape right here.

Jonathan Goldstein doesn't multitask. Counterpoint: what do you call babysitting your kids all morning whilst methodically eating every open bag of licorice and jujubes in your house? Jonathan Goldstein cannot follow directions. Counterpoint: when I'm conditioning my hair, I adhere to the letter of the directions. Not the spirit, but the letter. When it says, "Leave in for five minutes," I don't rinse it out after three or four like some half-ass Charlie.

But instead, I stated the obvious.

Jonathan Goldstein

You don't respect me, do you?

Mary

Um, I think you're a nice person.

Jonathan Goldstein

Later in the afternoon, I had to drop by the bookstore and pick up, for reasons I won't go into right here, a book on patent law. So when I get to the bookstore, this guy I know, Billy, is there. He doesn't work at the store, but he's there pretty much every time I go in, leaning against the counter and recommending The Master and Margarita to anyone who will listen.

Anyway, in the back of the store, Billy and I get into this discussion about Lord of The Rings. I'm not even sure how we got onto the subject. Billy is one of those guys who in high school used to hang up maps of Middle-earth in his locker. The kind of guy who could sing songs by Simon & Garfunkel in Elvish.

I start telling him about how I had just seen the movie, and how Frodo struck me as a little overly emotional about carrying the ring. Sure, the ring tempted people with acts of evil, but so does combining Jack Daniels, insomnia, and the Google search engine. I said I didn't think it would be such a huge deal to carry the ring, at least for a little while. Now, admittedly, our whole argument was ridiculous, but as ridiculous as it was, I was still losing.

Billy

I give you the Ring of Power, OK? What are you going to do with it, John? What are you doing to do with it?

Jonathan Goldstein

I--

Billy

No question about it. You wouldn't pull it off. You couldn't pull it off. You'd die. Your soul would be taken. Finished, end of story. You wouldn't cut it. You wouldn't cut it on the throne. You wouldn't even be a steward of Gondor. You wouldn't even be one of the Rohirrim? And you want to hold the ring? You couldn't hold the ring, John.

Jonathan Goldstein

Now, if I could have just paused things right here, right at this very moment, paced around a bit, shadow-boxed myself towards the right state of mind, I might have found the gumption to say that I didn't even want the stinking ring because all it does is turn you into a pretentious diva anyway. Everyone who holds it becomes Zsa Zsa Gabor. I would have said that even thinking about this ring stuff was for 14-year-old black-hooded Goth kids who strap suede pouches of 20-sided dice from their belts as fashion accessories.

Instead, I answered this way.

Jonathan Goldstein

Um, I don't know. That's a good question. I don't know.

To which Billy replied:

Billy

You don't know? You don't-- there's even a question? No, Jonathan, you couldn't hold the One Ring of Power. I wouldn't trust you for a second with the Ring of Power. Not for a second.

Jonathan Goldstein

Then I started to backpedal, saying that he was probably right, that I was ill-equipped to hold the ring. I was weak-willed and had little sense of community. I then said that he, Billy, was probably better suited to the task of ring bearer. To which Billy responded:

Billy

I wouldn't touch the ring, John. OK? Gandalf wouldn't touch the ring. Elrond wouldn't touch the ring. Fools like Boromir tried to touch the ring, but they died. I cannot handle the ring. I am not of Hobbit stock. I don't have that kind of heartiness.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK, stop right here.

No, Billy, you don't have that kind of heartiness. You wear yellow sweatpants, and your hands are as smooth as peeled tangerines. You possess the unearthly habit of pulling jaw breakers out of your mouth every five seconds to check what color they are. And whenever you burp, you're compelled to simultaneously speak the word, "Ralph."

But if you're standing there with Billy, looking into his eyes, frozen or not, of course, you don't say anything so mean, despite the fact that you want to. We all carry the ring around inside of us, and that ring is our capacity for wrongdoing. And both he and I, in some way, wish that this capacity could be removed from within us and pounded out into a shiny ring that could be passed around from person to person, allowing us to ease the burden of our urges. Such urges, say, as wanting to voice the really mean things we really think, but in the end, that would be appalling.

And rather than voicing any of this, I said, instead:

Jonathan Goldstein

Um, I thought-- I don't know.

Silly Johnny. Silly Johnny.

In the evening, I had dinner with my parents. I was going to be leaving to New York in a couple of days. And all evening, my father kept bringing up this bottle of vodka he wanted me to buy for him. And all evening, my mother kept cutting him off and yelling at him, louder and angrier as the night wore on. She told him it was impossible for me to get him the bottle, simply impossible. Why she thought it was impossible, I have no idea.

But anyway, eventually, my father dropped the subject. But then, after dinner was finished, he started once more.

Jonathan Goldstein's Father

It was a good meal, yeah. It was a good meal. But also I would like you to bring me back another bottle of that--

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

Could you understand that he can't? It's impossible. Stop that--

Jonathan Goldstein's Father

It's imposs--

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

Yes. Go on out, and buy yourself what you want.

Jonathan Goldstein's Father

You can't Smirnoff's 100 proof--

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

He can't get it. He's not going to schlep bottles from New York City for you.

Jonathan Goldstein's Father

All right. I have to say one thing, that if I have certain pleasures in life--

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

Who says you need pleasures? You don't need any pleasures. You're too old already for pleasures.

Jonathan Goldstein's Father

She diminishes my manhood. And she knows where to hit.

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

OK, Johnny, just have some pineapple now, sweetheart. Sit down and relax. Come eat something.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK, let's just stop right here. What do you say to that? Even after days of rumination, I still got nothing.

After dinner, my mother drove me to the bus stop. And in the car along the way, she spoke of how her job was going. My mother works at a daycare, and she really, really loves the kids. She was telling me about how her favorite thing is when the children let her hug them.

Jonathan Goldstein's Mother

You used to be so mean. I used to beg you for hugs, and you wouldn't give me any. You used to not give hugs.

Jonathan Goldstein

I realize now that it must have been difficult to have a child who never let you touch them. In old photographs, you could see me inching away uncomfortably from her hands on my shoulders. At my grade six prom, at the beginning of the mother-son dance, which I still remember as Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," I refused to dance with her. The whole notion of dancing with your mother in, of all places, your school's gymnasium struck me as unwholesome.

If there had been a pause button on the dashboard, and I could stop time, stop the flow of traffic entirely so that all the cars beside us on the road became these blurry Monet lily pads, and I could open the passenger door and step out to pace around among them, if I could have sat down on the hood of the car and stared at my mother's face, then maybe I might then have been able to say something better than what I did say, which was this:

Jonathan Goldstein

It's really nice the way you talk about the kids in your school. It's-- it-- it-- you know, the-the parents are lucky to have you looking after their kids. You really-- you know, you give them love, you know, which is something that you can't-- you can't really pay someone to love your-- your kids the way that, you know, the way that you would want them to be loved.

Even as I was saying it, I knew there was a better, more difficult thing to say, namely, I am sorry for never hugging you. Although what I did say wasn't exactly right, at that moment, it felt like the least wrong.

Life isn't about saying the right thing anyway. And it is certainly not about tape-recording everything so that you have to endure it more than once. Life is about failing. It is about letting the tape play. It is about eating the pineapple you are being force-fed, and, to the best of your ability, enjoying it.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "FLY LIKE AN EAGLE" BY THE STEVE MILLER BAND]

Act Two. In The Bush Leagues.

Ira Glass

Act Two, In The Bush Leagues. When he was in his early 20's, barely out of school, at the very first political event of his life, Charles Monroe-Kane got into a shouting match with the leader of the free world. And he pretty much lost that one. This was in the early 1990s. He just left the religious school where he had been studying to be a minister. And he moved to Amsterdam, where he fell in with a bunch of anarchists. He edited an environmental newspaper called the Green Tree News.

Charles Monroe

And I wanted to be an activist, so that's the whole reason I think I wanted to be a minister. I was into liberation theology. That's what I wanted to be.

And I was there about four or five weeks. And the G7 meeting was happening in Munich, Germany. President Bush-- former President Bush, or President Senior, or Dad, whatever you want to call him-- he was president. So we went down like a good activist would do. It was in Munich, Germany. We went down to protest. And I had only been doing this for four or five weeks, so I was kind of down.

It was my first political action ever. I was sleeping in the back of a bus with a bunch of dread-locked people. I had my hair down over my shoulders, and I had just gotten my ear pierced. I had a peace sign in my earring. You can imagine the person, right?

And so basically, we were going down to protest, and I had this press pass. I'm a bit of a talker, bit of a schmoozer. Met some people there, and found out that there are seven levels of press passes. I had level number one, which got you nothing but some faxes. Level number two got you nothing but some faxes, but also got you this buffet once a day. And now I'm sleeping in a bus. I'm like, well, hell, I'm not stupid. So I fandango my way in-- press pass number two.

Well, of course, food brought me to number three and number four. Now, number five got you a hotel room. I thought, well, my friends could use this. Because we were starting to smell on the second day. So I kept BS-ing my way all the way through just to get these press passes.

Ira Glass

Wait, so you get the room?

Charles Monroe

All the way to the sixth level, yeah. I get the room. We get in there-- and the food was awesome, by the way, on the sixth level-- and the suite was-- it was a decent-- it was almost like a suite. It was a decent size where all of us could stay for free.

And then what happens is I'm with some people who later became very good friends of mine, but at the time, I didn't know them very well. A friend named Paxus and some others who were high level at Friends of The Earth and Greenpeace. These people are like, "Do you realize what you have? You have a level six press pass at the G7 meeting. You have access to all these places and all these things."

"OK, that's cool."

He said, "But what you don't have is you don't have a White House press pass. That's the top level." So he's like, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to try the next level. You should try to get a White House press pass."

I said, "Why?"

He said, "Because you could be live at a press conference. You can protest. Tomorrow, George Bush, at 11 o'clock in the morning"-- this is in the afternoon the day before-- "he's giving a live press conference on CNN."

I was like, "Oh, I never thought of it. I've never done an action before."

So I went, and I went to this beer garden where I knew some of the people who made the decisions were. And I met a man named Marlin Fitzwater-- I think a lot of people might know who he is-- and he's sitting there drinking. But I didn't know who the hell he was.

Ira Glass

The White House Press Secretary.

Charles Monroe

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

The actual White House Press Secretary.

Charles Monroe

Because that's the step. Because that's a higher level. The president's got a different security issue.

Well, here's the logic for him, right? He's already assumed I've been checked. Remember, he already knows I have the sixth level press pass, so I'm not like I'm an anarchist in Amsterdam or something like that, for Christ's sake. So I think that he wasn't too worried about that.

So then, anyway, he gives me a press pass. It's very exciting. I go back to my hotel room with a bunch of naked, dirty hippies, and I show these people the press pass. And they flip out. They're like, "You're kidding. You got it." I don't understand the ramifications of what's about to happen at all. So basically, they're like, "Well, tomorrow morning, President Bush, at 11 o'clock in the morning, is giving this conference, a press conference live on CNN. You should-- you have a press pass to go there-- I think that you should do something."

I was like, "Well, I agree."

So then I sit down with these guys, these guys now who are like-- all the hippie, dirty activists are out of the room, and now I've got the Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth people who know what they're talking about guys. And they're like, "Have you thought about what you're going to say?"

And I was like, "No, not really."

So we talked about it. And they said, "The most important thing to do is two things. Keep your hands away from your body while you do this, so you don't get shot. Because they might think it's an attempted assassination or something. And you're going to get 20 to 30 seconds max. That's all you're going to get, so know what you're going to say."

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. These are the two pieces of advice they give you? Piece of advice number one is, don't get yourself shot? Like, that's--

Charles Monroe

It's good advice, though. And I took it. Because they were like, "Keep your hands away from your body." They said, "Don't wear a watch. Roll up your sleeves, or have on a short-sleeve shirt. You have to be careful. You're in a small room. You're standing up-- basically, you're going to stand up on a chair. Situate yourself in the middle of the room, so you're hard to get at by the Secret Service guys, who are going to, in 15 or 30 seconds, drag you away and arrest you. So what are you going to say?"

And I thought, "Well, all I know is Christianity."

And they said, "Well, that's OK. You can go with that. Americans relate to that."

And I said, "You know, I've always wanted to be one of the Old Testament prophets. I thought that would be really cool. That's kind of a life dream. That was what I wanted to be."

Ira Glass

Now, wait, wait. Now when you say this to a bunch of real activists, "I've always wanted to be one of the Old Testament prophets," is that pretty much where they roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads and look at the ground? They just think, "Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into here?"

Charles Monroe

No, I think they were more like, "Jesus, this dude's got a White House press pass in his hand, and he is such an idiot. He's so not prepared that we've got to help this kid out. Because we don't have the press pass. He does, and he's the only one who's going to get in."

And so I went to the Bible. And my favorite profit was Jeremiah. And Jeremiah had a certain style. So I think, "Here's what I want to do. I want to get some ashes. I'm going to put some ashes on my head. I want to rip my shirt off, rip it open [MAKES RIPPING SOUND] like that. And I'm going to give him a line from the Old Testament. A good line."

And they said, "Well, maybe you shouldn't quote the Bible. You should do it in that style, something from your thing."

So I thought about it, thought about it, and I came up with this great line. "The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to hell." I thought, "Now, that's a good line." That's good. It's about him, but it takes inanimate objects into effect. I'm an environmental activist as well. So I said, "That's what I'm going to do."

Ira Glass

Now Charles, can we just pause the story right here--

Charles Monroe

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

And let's move to the present, a dozen years later. Now, when you think about that quote now, as the adult you are, how do you view that quote now?

Charles Monroe

Oh, my god, it's the most embarrassing choice of anything I would ever use in my life. If I had 30 seconds to choose now, I think I would say something maybe a little bit more, a little less, whatever-- symbolic, I don't know. But that's what I had. I was 22, and that's all I knew.

So I practiced it over and over again. "The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to hell. The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to hell." Hands away from my body.

But then one of the activists guys came up with a great idea, this American guy. He was like, "Well, don't rip your clothes because that's going to get misunderstood. You should rip an American flag in half. And that should be the cloth that you rip."

I said, "That's a great idea." So I'm going to put ashes on my forehead, I'm going to rip an American flag in half, I'm going to read that statement, yell it out with all the passion I can muster, get arrested, and awesome!

Ira Glass

Wait. Have you ever-- you've lived in the United States of America, right?

Charles Monroe

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Are you familiar with how people feel about the ripping in half of the American flag?

Charles Monroe

That's probably part of the reason he liked and I liked it, I think, at the time.

Ira Glass

But weren't you trying to win the sympathies of your countrymen?

Charles Monroe

Yeah, I think I was. But I also think I was-- I don't know what I was trying to do, man-- I was 22. When you were 22, did you know what you were trying to do? Good Lord, I don't know I was trying to do.

So I couldn't sleep that night. They were right. I couldn't sleep. I was a little nervous. And they got me a shirt and a pair of pants. Some shoes that fit me. We had to go to different activists to find it all. A nice tie. I took the earring out. They had a lawyer for me. I gave him my passport. Nothing in my pockets. But shoved down the front of my pants is an American flag-- partly ripped on the top, so I could easily rip it in half-- and some ashes in my pocket.

And this quote burned into my brain. It was like a zen-- I don't even know what zen is at the time-- I do now. But at the time, it was a zen mantra. "The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to hell." And that's all I had in my mind.

So I go into the press conference saying, you know-- and a former Christian kid, here I am. So I sit down. I situate myself in the middle of the room. There's about 44, 45 people. And I remember counting them. I was nervous, so I counted all the people. My throat was dry, and I thought I was going to pass out. And I didn't want to throw up. I knew that would be bad. That wouldn't be a good symbol. And I didn't want to pass out.

So it's coming up to the point. My heart's aflutter.

Ira Glass

Well, let me stop you right there. Because we have here in the studio a videotape of this day, July 8, 1992. We got this courtesy of the Vanderbilt University Television Archives. And you have never seen this?

Charles Monroe

No, I've never seen it. I've never even seen the highlights from any of the news. All I've seen is newspaper stuff. I'm really nervous about watching this.

Ira Glass

OK. Let's roll the tape.

News Anchor

Right now, let's go live to Munich to hear President Bush's comments at the close of the G7 summit.

Charles Monroe

I totally remember that, him coming in. That was intense.

President George H.w. Bush

--the last three days discussing the responsibilities and opportunities that we had--

Charles Monroe

Because that's the point where I'm sitting there with a flag between my legs I'm going rip in half and yell at the man, the President of the United States. Oh my god, it makes me want to pass out. All right. Sorry.

President George H.w. Bush

--sustaining political reform. I would cite five key accomplishments at the Munich Economic Summit. We've succeeded in achieving a solid consensus on strengthening--

Ira Glass

Now, he's barely spoken for a half minute. He's still in his opening statement.

George H.w. Bush

--United States, Japan,

[YELLING IN THE BACKGROUND]

George H.w. Bush

Germany, and Italy have--

Ira Glass

Now the camera's panning back.

Charles Monroe

Repent. We mourn your decisions here. You're not giving us your voice.

Charles Monroe

Oh my god, look at that kid. Wow, you can't even hear the great line, "The homeless in the trees are mourning your decisions here."

Ira Glass

You can't hear it all. You can't hear it at all. All you hear is the president.

Charles Monroe

Oh, I didn't even notice that. I didn't even know that. What if nobody heard it? I guess not. This is the tape.

Ira Glass

This is the tape. I don't think anybody heard it.

Charles Monroe

Wow. That's intense.

President George H.w. Bush

I'm trying to give--

Charles Monroe

[INAUDIBLE] your voice in the US.

President George H.w. Bush

I'm trying to give you my voice right now. And if you'd be quiet, maybe you could hear it.

Charles Monroe

But you're not giving it to us [INAUDIBLE].

President George H.w. Bush

Well, would you please sit down? We're in the middle of a press conference here.

Charles Monroe

You're not giving us your voice there.

President George H.w. Bush

Well, what's your question, sir?

Charles Monroe

I'm under 25, and I want to know--

President George H.w. Bush

Well, we can tell that.

Charles Monroe

Nice. Good for him. He got me on that one.

President George H.w. Bush

Now, what's your question?

Charles Monroe

Now, this I remember. Because I just assumed I was going to be arrested. I knew I wasn't going to be shot. That hadn't happened yet, so that's cool. And I'm like, "This is it." And what happened next was amazing because nothing happened next.

I didn't get arrested. He had this thing where he had his hands on the podium, and he kind of moved his hands. I don't know what signals they have, or whatever, but they didn't arrest me. And then the worst possible thing in the world happened to me. He ain't going to arrest me, and he's about to engage me. And I was like, "Oh, my god. The President of the United States is speaking to me right now, and he basically started asking me questions. And I was like, "Holy mackerel." I really almost passed out.

President George H.w. Bush

Who are you, and who are you accredited to?

Charles Monroe

My name is Charles Kane.

President George H.w. Bush

Yeah.

Charles Monroe

I'm from the United States.

President George H.w. Bush

Yeah.

Charles Monroe

I work with a magazine in the Netherlands. It's a youth magazine. And we want to know why we're not taken seriously. We're an environmental group.

President George H.w. Bush

Well, maybe you're rude. People don't take rude people seriously. And if you interrupt a press conference like this, I'm sure that people would say that's why we don't take you seriously.

Charles Monroe

[INAUDIBLE]

President George H.w. Bush

Sit down, and I will take a question from you when we get in the question and answer period. Right now, I would like to continue my statement with your permission.

Charles Monroe

Thank you, Captain. Go ahead.

President George H.w. Bush

Now, where were we? We were talking about economic recovery. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

So the President gives this little nervous laugh and sort of looks down, and then he goes on with his regular statement.

Charles Monroe

Oh my god.

Ira Glass

And this continues for a few minutes.

Charles Monroe

So I'm sitting down, That's all. I don't remember.

Ira Glass

So you're sitting down.

Charles Monroe

Why didn't I keep yelling? What a wimp. I guess I was probably-- but he gave me a cue there.

Ira Glass

Well, what do you mean why-- What he was saying was perfectly reasonable. "I'll get to you during the question-- look, we're going to talk, and it's going to be during the question and answer period. I'm just reading my opening statement." How are you going to argue with that?

Charles Monroe

Yeah, but it's a protest. I was supposed to be in there yelling at him. I was supposed to get arrested. I thought I was supposed to get arrested.

Oh my god, I so didn't want to be there after I didn't get arrested. I was so embarrassed. It was horrible.

Ira Glass

Because from your point of view, the whole point was to get arrested.

Charles Monroe

Yes.

Ira Glass

So now at this point, you've failed.

Charles Monroe

Well, also, I not only failed at that point for not getting arrested, I also know I'm going to fail because he's going to ask a question to me later. Because I don't have anything to say. I mean, you've got to remember that. I don't have anything to say. I don't have a question. What do you mean, I have a question? Of course, I don't have a question.

Ira Glass

So finally it comes to you. You're the third question. And basically, he answers two questions, and then he says this.

President George H.w. Bush

And that's what we're talking about. Now, let's go to this gentleman who's so agitated here.

Charles Monroe

I just want to know why there's no new nuclear power plants in the United States being built, but you're proposing for Siemens to build them in Eastern Europe?

President George H.w. Bush

Oh, I'd like some more to be built.

Charles Monroe

Why are they so unsafe in our country and so safe in their country?

President George H.w. Bush

Well, I don't think they're un--

Charles Monroe

Why it is only at the G7--

President George H.w. Bush

You've asked your question, sir. Now let me try to answer it for you. I favor nuclear power. I believe that it can be safely used. I believe that it is environmentally sound. The debate here has been that we ought to try to help those areas that have nuclear facilities that might not have the latest technology and might not meet the same standards of safety that we use in our country. Thank you very much. Now, we'll go here.

Charles Monroe

Do you respect the flag?

Ira Glass

Then you said, "Do you respect the flag?"

President George H.w. Bush

You had your question.

Charles Monroe

Oh, now the media is yelling at me.

[CROWD YELLING]

Charles Monroe

It's all rhetoric. Come on, you guys, think about it.

Ira Glass

And then you say, "It's all rhetoric."

Charles Monroe

Is the world going to be a better place in a year?

President George H.w. Bush

This is coming out of your time, gang, and we've got 20 minutes here.

Media Member

This is a press conference, man.

Charles Monroe

Come on. This [UNINTELLIGIBLE] acting up at all.

Sam Donaldson

Mr. President--

Charles Monroe

You guys are all part of this system too.

Ira Glass

And then the president sort of laughs.

Charles Monroe

Thanks a lot. Go ahead.

Sam Donaldson

Much has been said here by you and others about the--

Charles Monroe

We've given up.

Ira Glass

And then there's the voice of Sam Donaldson. And then now, it's back to normal.

Charles Monroe

God, I can't believe I did that. That's embarrassing. It's so hot in here. I'm totally embarrassed by that. Oh my god. I mean, I'm not embarrassed about yelling at the President of the United States. I do not sit here right now and say, "Wow, I wish I wouldn't have done it." No way. I sit here right now and say, "I wish I would have done it down better."

Ira Glass

And what would doing a better job have meant? What do you wish that you would have said?

Charles Monroe

I wish I would have said something that kind of hung in the air for a moment, that made everybody silent, that would keep him awake for one moment of his life, that just would make him think, "Wow, I do have some responsibility, and I have squandered that responsibility."

Ira Glass

But what could that possibly be?

Charles Monroe

I don't know. Haven't you been touched by one statement in your life that's affected you greatly? I have.

Ira Glass

Yes, but it's--

Charles Monroe

So I'm giving him credit.

Ira Glass

It seems very unlikely in this setting.

Charles Monroe

Now, in retrospect, it's extremely unlikely. It's probably a million to one, but you got to try. You got to try

Ira Glass

I don't know. When I see the president answering questions at a news conference, I feel like what he's doing is-- he doesn't want to say anything that's going to get him in trouble. He doesn't want to say anything that's going to make his life more complicated and difficult. And it's not an environment conducive to learning.

Charles Monroe

What I should have said is-- when I think about it at 3 o'clock in the morning, it's not the-- it's in general what I should have said. I should have said something that would affect the man's life. And what's depressing for me that really makes me sad is that I still haven't come up with what I should have said. And that really makes me sad.

Ira Glass

But of course, you didn't come up with what you should have said because nothing could have been said--

Charles Monroe

I won't accept that--

Ira Glass

In that setting that was going to make the President of the United States rethink anything in particular.

Charles Monroe

I won't accept that. I should have found something that could have changed the world at that moment. I had my opportunity at that moment. I think I should have gone for it.

Ira Glass

Now, you're in your thirties now. Have you ever had this experience where somebody just yelled something at you, some punk kid, whatever, yelled at you?

Charles Monroe

I did. I was at an introduction. I was introducing somebody who was about to give a speech. They heckled me. It was a really interesting experience because immediately what came back was me.

Ira Glass

Did it keep you up at night afterwards? Did it give you something to think about?

Charles Monroe

That's an unfair-- of course, no, it didn't give me anything to think about. No, it didn't keep me up at night at all. It didn't-- yeah, I get your-- that's a good question. No, it didn't keep me up at all.

Ira Glass

And so do you think, thinking about George Bush and the possibility that he would be kept up at night a moment like this--

Charles Monroe

No. No, OK, I understand where you're going. I respect where you're going. No, of course not. But I know this all along. Yeah, I know this all along. It's only what you wish would have happened. I hope-- I don't know. Maybe I'll read his memoirs, and he'll say, "You know--"

OK, forget it. I won't even go there. I tried, man. It was a tough day, man. It was a tough day. I tried really. I did my best. My best wasn't very good at the time, but I tried my best.

Ira Glass

Charles Monroe-Kane. He's a producer for the public radio program To The Best of Our Knowledge. Coming up, David Sedaris and When You Wish Upon A Pie. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. A Can Of Worms.

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 I Should've Said. Stories where people go back in time, rethink the moments that have vexed them. We have arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, A Can Of Worms. David Sedaris told this next story before a live audience.

David Sedaris

Hugh wanted hamburgers. So he, his friend Anne, and I went to a place called The Apple Pan. This was in Los Angeles. I thought The Apple Pan would be a restaurant, but it was more like a diner. No tables, just stools arranged along a u-shaped counter.

We ordered our hamburgers from a man in a paper hat. And while waiting for them to arrive, Anne pulled out some pictures of her bull terrier. She's a professional photographer, and so they were portraits rather than snapshots. Here was the dog peeking out from behind a curtain. Here was the dog sitting human style in an easy chair, a paw resting on the paunch of his stomach.

When she's not taking pictures of her dog, Anne flies around the country on assignment from various magazines. A day earlier, she'd returned from Boston where she photographed the fire commissioner, whose last name is Bastardo. "That's bastard with an O on the end," she said. "Don't you think that's funny?" Hugh told her about some neighbors in Normandy whose last name translates to hot ass. But unless you speak French, it's hard to get the joke.

"Is that hyphenated," Anne asked. "I mean, did Miss Hot marry Mr. Ass, or is it all one word?"

I thought the conversation would rest here for a while, and so I prepared myself to contribute, wary of how easy it is to fall into a game of one-upsmanship. If you knew a Candy Dick, the other person is bound to have known a Harry Dick or a Dick Eater. I'd recently learned of the race car driver Dick Trickle. But for the time being, we were operating on a higher plane.

Anne's last name is Fishbein, and she hates it. She and Hugh met in college, and when our hamburgers arrived, they reminisced about some of the people they had gone to school with. "What was that guy's name? I think he was in the art department. Mike maybe, or Mark? He used to go out with Karen, I think her name was. Or Kimberly. You know who I mean?" Talk like this can go on for a while. And while you do have to accept it, you don't have to actually pay attention.

I stared straight ahead, watching a broken-nosed cook top a hamburger with cheese. And then I turned slightly to my left and began listening to the two men seated on the other side of me. The man beside me wore a t-shirt endorsing the state of Florida. And as if the weather were completely different on the other side of the ketchup bottle, the man beside him wore a thick wool sweater and heavy corduroy pants. A coat rested in his lap, and before him on the counter sat a newspaper and an empty cup of coffee.

"Did you read about those worms," he asked? He was referring to the can of nematodes, tiny worms recently discovered on the Texas plains. They'd been sent up with the doomed space shuttle and had somehow managed to survive the explosion, the cause of which was still a mystery. The man in the sweater massaged his chin and stared into space.

"I've been thinking we could solve this problem in no time," he said, "if only, if only we could get the damn things to talk." It sounded crazy, but I remember thinking the exact same thing about the Akita in the O.J. Simpson case.

"Put it on the stand. Let's hear what it's got to say." It was one of those ideas that just for a split second seemed entirely logical, the one solution that nobody had thought of. The man in the t-shirt considered the possibility.

"Well," he said, "even if the worms could talk, it wouldn't do much good. They was in that can, remember?"

"I guess you're right."

The men stood to pay their bills. And before they reached the door, their stools were taken by two people who did not know one another. One was a man dressed in a fine suit, and the other, a young woman who sat down and immediately started reading what looked to be a script. Over on my right, Hugh had decided that rather than Karen or Kimberly, the classmate had been named Katherine.

While I'd been listening to my neighbors, he had ordered me a piece of pie. And as I picked up my fork, Anne told me that I was supposed to eat it backwards, starting with the outer crust and working my way inward.

"Your last bite should be the point, and you're supposed to make a wish on it," she said. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that?"

"Come again?"

Anne looked at me the way you might at someone who regularly tosses money into the fire. The senselessness, the waste.

"Well, better late than never," she said. And she repositioned my plate.

As she and Hugh resumed their conversation, I thought of all the pie I had eaten during the course of my life, and I wondered how different things might be if only I had wished upon the points. To begin with, I would not be seated at The Apple Pan. That much was certain. Had I gotten my wish at the age of eight, I would still be rounding up mummies in Egypt, luring them from their tombs and trapping them in heavy iron cages. All subsequent wishes would have been based upon the life I had already established. A new set of boots. A finer whip. Greater command of the mummy language.

That's the problem with wishes. They ensnare you. In fairy tales, they're nothing but trouble, magnifying the greed and vanity of the person for whom they are granted. One's best bet, and the moral to all those stories, is to be unselfish and make your wish for the benefit of others, trusting that their happiness will make you happy as well. That'll be the day.

Since we'd entered, The Apple Pan had grown progressively busier. All the seats were now taken. And people leaned against the wall, their eyes moving from stool to stool, determining which customers should pay up and get out. Looking around, I saw that we were the likeliest candidates. The man in the hat had removed our hamburger wrappers, and all that remained was a single plate supporting the tip of my pie. I wished that the people against the wall would stop staring at us, and then quickly, but not quick enough, I tried to take it back.

"I guess we should get going," Hugh said, and he and Anne pulled out their wallets. There was a little struggle over who would pay. "It's my treat." "No, it's mine." But I stayed out of it, thinking instead of what might have been had I not wasted my wish. A laboratory filled with sensitive equipment. Men in white coats trembling with hope and wonder as they leaned forward, catching the sound of one small voice. "Come to think of it," the worm says, "I do remember seeing something suspicious."

Ira Glass

David Sedaris. This story appears in his most recent book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

[MUSIC - "THE GLOW WORM" BY THE MILLS BROTHERS]

Act Four. Life Sentence.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Life Sentence. In 1989, a politician named Mike Miller, president of the Maryland State Senate, the kind of political veteran who does not slip up, made a comment to a reporter-- just a few sentences off the cuff-- that many political observers say put the kibosh on his chances to become governor.

The day this happened actually happened to be the day of a big political coming-out party for Miller, his first statewide fundraiser, to be held over in Baltimore. Miller comes from a district near DC. He'd sold over 2,000 tickets. Both US senators would be there, and the governor, and the mayor of Baltimore. But also, the same day, one of his law partners died at a desk in their law offices. So a lot was on his mind.

And with all this happening, he gets a call from a TV reporter who was doing a story about a local gun control issue.

Mike Miller

She came to my office, and I was sitting there very despondent about the law partner who had been found dead sitting just a few hours before in his chair in his office. And she comes in and starts stalking to me-- no mic check or no white-on-white check or anything like that. She said to me, "Why are you going to Baltimore?" In other words, you're not from this area in Baltimore, you're from Washington. Why are you going to Baltimore?

And I used some profanity-laced language about the city, defaming the city, which I love. But I was just using it to describe the need of the city in terms of jobs, in terms of economic development, in terms of education. But I said it in barnyard phraseology that-- which is sort of my standard nomenclature when I'm not in public life. I mean, I grew up in the country, you know?

Ira Glass

I don't mean to embarrass you for this thing. It happened 15 years ago. But let me just read the exact quote so people listening on the radio will know what we're talking about.

Mike Miller

OK.

Ira Glass

You were asked why were you holding a fundraiser in Baltimore, and you said, "It helps educate my constituents as to why Baltimore needs the economic help. I mean, Baltimore is a goddamn ghetto. It's worse than inner-city Washington, DC. It is [BLEEP]." They beeped out the words like we're doing. And then you say, on tape, apparently, "I hope you're not going to play this on tape." And you laughed, and then you said, "I mean, it's a war zone. I mean, it's crack. I mean, it's dime bags of PCP. 1/4 of every kid is not in school each day. 50% of the kids that start out in school don't graduate. So looking at things from a statewide perspective, we really have to do things to help."

Mike Miller

Right. That's what I said.

Ira Glass

But you didn't know they were actually rolling film?

Mike Miller

No, absolutely not. But I didn't know that I had said anything wrong. I mean, I really didn't realize that I'd said anything wrong. I had no idea I'd said anything wrong. Nobody told me I was on television at the time. And so later on, she does her interview, and everything is fine. Doesn't mention anything, we don't follow up with it or anything like that.

And then I get a call later on. Apparently, she'd got the tape, and she'd run to the Mayor of Baltimore, "Let me show you this." And she put it on the Baltimore stations, and then put it on the Washington stations. And they would make the announcement, "Be careful, have your children leave the room before you see this."

Ira Glass

Wow.

Mike Miller

It was very traumatic. Because like I say, the people showed up at the fundraiser, and the mayor of Baltimore was there and the governor. And they couldn't believe that I'd said what I said.

Ira Glass

So when something like this happens, is this just like a bomb going off? Does everything turn over in a minute?

Mike Miller

Yes, very much so. I couldn't sleep. I left the hotel at 4 o'clock in the morning. I left my wife at the hotel. I couldn't sleep. I just had to get out of the city. I said, "Look, I'm leaving." And the doorman, he said, "Senator?" He says, "I don't understand this." He says, "You've always been great to Baltimore. I don't understand this." He says, "We'll figure a way out of this." He says, "You and I will figure a way out of this." This is the doorman at the hotel.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Mike Miller

And I said, "I appreciate it. Thank you very much." And anyway--

Ira Glass

Man, I've got to say, that's a bad number when--

Mike Miller

He was a great guy, he was a great guy.

Ira Glass

When the doorman of the hotel is consoling you.

Mike Miller

The doorman of the hotel. He said, "Look, Senator, I'll help you. We'll figure a way--"

Ira Glass

This is at 4:00 in the morning?

Mike Miller

Yes. So the next night, I'm on all the TV channels, 2, 11, 13. And anyway--

Ira Glass

You mean going back and giving your side of it?

Mike Miller

I went back in the city. I said, "Look, let me just explain this as best I can." And I explained it sort of the way I did to you. And the doorman goes-- I come back to the doorman because my wife had forgot her hat-- and he goes, "Senator, Senator," he said, "I knew you could do it, I knew you could do it." He said, "That country boy stuff gets them every time."

[LAUGHING]

So anyway, it was very traumatic for me. And like I say, a lot of people took offense that I used the word ghetto for example. And at the time, I didn't realize the connotation.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Now, this happened on a night of an exploratory fundraiser for statewide office. What effect did this have on your career when you look back?

Mike Miller

If I were going to run for statewide office, it would certainly have set me back four to eight years. My adviser said, "If you had just taken that theme and expanded it and say what you really meant, you could have turned it into a positive." And I said, "Look, I don't really feel like doing that much explaining, and I don't want my mother to have to hear this statement again."

Because wherever I campaign, it's going to be on TV. It's going to be on sound bites and TV ads and wherever, and I really don't want to see that again on television or in print.

Ira Glass

This must have been one of those moments you ended up thinking about a lot afterwards, right?

Mike Miller

Oh, yeah. I mean, I just--

Ira Glass

And what would you think? When you replay it in your head, what would you think about it?

Mike Miller

Well, as a politician, they give you these things, how you're supposed to deal with reporters and the press. And what you're supposed to say, and you're always on record. But I've never been able to follow that guideline for myself. I just-- People appreciate your candidness, but at the same time, it gets you in a lot of trouble.

Ira Glass

Did you find that you were more careful in what you were saying afterwards?

Mike Miller

No. But I did find that there were certain reporters I wouldn't talk to anymore.

[LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

And I saw that a couple years ago, in 2001-- that's 12 years after this happened-- the Baltimore papers did a big profile of you, a very flattering profile summarizing your legislative career. And this is one of the things that they mentioned. Not in a big way, but just as one of the things that had happened in your career. Is it dispiriting feeling like you're just never going to shake this, you know what I mean? When you retire, it's going to be there? In your obit, they're going to mention this in passing?

Mike Miller

It's going to be in my obituary. It's going to be in my obituary. There's a lot of things. And unfortunately, as somebody said, "History is lies agreed upon." Well, some of it's the truth, and you just have to take the good with the bad.

Ira Glass

Mike Miller. He never did run for governor or for any other statewide office. He's a state senator, and now the longest sitting president of the Maryland State Senate in that body's history.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Starlee Kine and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, and Sarah Koenig. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Kelsey Dilts. Special thanks today to Luke Burbank and William Eville. You can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even The New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who has a message for you, a very important message. And he wants you to listen very, very carefully. Are you ready?

Charles Monroe

The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to hell.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.