Transcript

294:

Image Makers
Transcript

Originally aired 08.05.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/294

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Kristy went to one of those high schools for the performing arts, like in Fame, except not good. One of her teachers would leave the room for long stretches to smoke cigarettes, another spent lots of class time gossiping about which celebrities were dating.

Kristy Kruger

One of my music teachers, he never got the memo about separation of church and state. He would talk about Jesus all the time. And he actually would ask, "So, raise your hands. How many of you went to church on Sunday? I bet you would have gone to church if I would have given you extra credit."

Ira Glass

When a jazz piano class conflicted with World History, her counselor simply signed her out of World History. He listed it on her transcript as a class that she took, but she never actually went to class. It was that kind of school.

She was there to study piano, and that's what she devoted all of her energy to. She practiced after school for four hours to eight hours a day.

Kristy Kruger

Yeah, so I practiced a lot. I mean, I didn't really know much outside the walls of the practice room. And I just really realized, when I got to college, I was way behind. I mean, I didn't even know how to write a paper, you know?

Ira Glass

But it wasn't exactly in class in college that she realized just how far behind she was. She could fake it in class. It was on stage that she realized, in an improvisational comedy troupe that she joined as a freshman. On stage, her lack of knowledge could be kind of harrowing.

Kristy Kruger

Like, if someone referred to Henry Kissinger in a scene, I'd just have no idea who that was, at all. The audience would throw out suggestions, like the Hindenburg thing.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

The Hindenburg disaster, yeah.

Kristy Kruger

Yeah, and I just had no idea.

Ira Glass

And then you had to re-enact it on a stage in front of people, and you had no idea what it referred to?

Kristy Kruger

I cannot tell you how many times something like that happened, where everybody was laughing and I had no idea why they were laughing. It was really scary, actually, to be honest. I mean, I was so nervous. And I really wanted to stay in the troupe. I didn't want to get kicked out, but I really was so clueless.

Ira Glass

In one of the sketches they would do on stage, they would ask the audience for a bunch of historical events, and then they would do their own little renditions of these events in the historical order that they happened. And in performing this one day, Kristy confounded her cast mates by putting World War I before the Salem witch trials, but she did manage to locate it after the invention of the wheel.

Kristy Kruger

And after the whole show, everybody was like, "God, Kristy. What was up with that? I mean, why did you start off with World War I? It was the Salem witch trials." They just thought that I wasn't thinking. And I was like, "I didn't know that World War I came after the Salem witch trials."

[LAUGHS]

Yeah. They kind of looked at me in disbelief.

Ira Glass

Did you know what the Salem witch trials were?

Kristy Kruger

I did. You know what, honestly? You know, I don't even think it's about that. I think it's about that I didn't remember anything about World War I. I thought if it was World War I, it must have happened a long time ago.

[LAUGHTER]

Does that make sense?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Because the world is so--

Kristy Kruger

Because it's the first war.

Ira Glass

That ever happened. Sure. Absolutely.

Kristy Kruger

It was like, well, invention of the wheel, then it must have been World War I.

Ira Glass

Right.

Kristy Kruger

I had no idea it happened in the 1900s, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

It was the first one.

Ira Glass

Well, I can see the confusion.

So, to cope with this problem you were having, that you were on stage, you have no idea what's going on, people are laughing at you, and you have no idea why, did you come up with any kind of coping strategy?

Kristy Kruger

I totally did. I came up with some characters that, in their essence, it was OK to be ignorant. So I would use a stoner a lot of times. I'd be like, "Whoa, dude. I have no idea what's going on." And then I would use the troll, which was really my favorite. I would just kind of throw my hair in my face and talk in gibberish. And I'd just be like, Dar! Flar! Figgy floo! Vee floogle ooh! Flogalo vase!, like that.

Ira Glass

You'd be in the middle of a scene with another performer, and suddenly that's what you would do? You would just get a stumper?

Kristy Kruger

Yeah, in every scene, regardless of the time period or setting.

Ira Glass

Does that work?

Kristy Kruger

Yeah. It works.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

And that's how Kristy turned things around for herself, by pretending to be exactly the thing she was scared she was: an ignorant babbler.

Kristy Kruger

I think that it saved me. I think I was really lost in this troupe.

Ira Glass

Did you get into social situations that were awkward in exactly the same way that being on stage was awkward, where people would be talking about stuff and you wouldn't know what the hell is going on, and then, basically, you would just turn into the troll?

Kristy Kruger

I wish that the troll would work in real-life situations, where you're sitting around having a conversation and someone brings up a historic reference that I have no clue, and everyone else is engaged in this, and I just kind of wish I could contribute by going, "Well, fig, floo! Thar! Flar! Dar, de, var, far."

[LAUGHTER]

But, it doesn't really work out that way.

Ira Glass

Well, today, on our radio show, we have three stories of people in the same situation Kristy was in, where people think of them as up for grabs. They're worried about how people will see them, and like Kristy--

Kristy Kruger

Flogalo vase!

Ira Glass

--they take action. They take control of how they're going to be seen with dramatic, drastic steps.

Kristy Kruger

Fig! Floo! Thar! Flar! Far!

Ira Glass

Well said.

Kristy Kruger

Flar! Dar, de, var, far!

Ira Glass

From WBEZ, Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Act One of our show today, Dewey Decibel System. In that story, an American institution calls in the cavalry, calls in very unlikely allies in order to change its own image. Act Two, Goldstein On Goldstein. In that act, Mr. Jonathan Goldstein considers the question of manliness, specifically, his own manliness, and turns to a real man for answers, namely, his dad. Act Three, Heart Shaped Box. In that act, a mom decides that she's going to remake all of the ideas that her son has about his father using a very simple tactic. Stay with us.

Act One. Dewey Decibel System.

Ira Glass

Act One. This first story is about an audacious act of rebranding done by a group of people who are not normally thought of as being very audacious at all: public librarians, in this case, teen librarians, the ones who work with teenagers. Alex Blumberg prepared this report last summer.

Alex Blumberg

If you travel among the teen librarians of Michigan, as I did recently, you'll hear a strange phrase over and over again. The phrase is lock-in, like, did you hear how the lock-in went the other night in Kalamazoo? One of the biggest practitioners of the lock-in is a guy named Bill Harmer, the only person I've ever met who could accurately be described as a maverick teen librarian. He explained to me that a lock-in is when the library reopens its doors after closing time, lets a bunch of teenagers in, and then--

Bill Harmer

Once they come in to the building, they can't leave.

Alex Blumberg

Oh, OK.

Bill Harmer

So they're stuck there until the program's over.

Alex Blumberg

So inviting a bunch of teenagers to a library and then locking them in is a fun activity for them?

Bill Harmer

Yeah. They love it. They love it. Every time I've done one, we've had at least 50 or more teenagers show up.

Alex Blumberg

It turns out, the lock-in is a state-of-the-art technique in the arsenal of the modern, teen librarian. The library has an image problem. Teenagers see it as the equivalent of summer school: boring, no fun. But Bill Harmer and his colleagues say that's the old library, and they're on a campaign to change people's perceptions.

Bill has attacked this problem with inspiring devotion. He's had sleep-overs in the library where 50 kids camped out between the stacks. He's hosted late night car tournaments. He stocks the teen section with the latest in Japanese Manga comics and graphic novels. And he's assembled the largest and most comprehensive DVD collection in the entire state, he says, including video stores.

But last fall, Bill hatched a plan to take teen library programming to a place it's never gone before, to leave the lock-in in the dust. The plan was this, stage a series of concerts inside libraries all over Michigan, but not the type of music normally associated with the library: acoustic instruments, lyrics about ducks and bunnies, singing puppets.

[MUSIC - "SHOW A SIGN OF LIFE" BY THE HIGH STRUNG]

No. This would be rock music with electric guitars and huge speakers. This would be, in other words, the state of Michigan's first ever rock and roll library tour. And I know what you're thinking. Libraries: famously quiet. Rock and roll: famously loud. This is the diabolical genius of Bill Harmon's idea: making something appealing by binding it with its exact opposite. Card catalogs packed with Harry Potter and Judy Bloom and this.

[MUSIC - "SHOW A SIGN OF LIFE" BY THE HIGH STRUNG]

The song you're listening to now is from the CD of the band that Bill Harmer booked on his library tour, an indie rock trio out of Detroit called The High Strung.

Josh Malerman

We are The High Strung. I'm Josh Malerman. I sing, and play the guitar, and write the songs. Derek?

Derek Berk

Oh, I'm Derek Berk. I play the drums, and I fix the van. And I take care of a lot of reality issues.

Alex Blumberg

He's the treasurer.

Josh Malerman

Yes.

Derek Berk

No, I'm the CFO of the band.

Chad Stocker

I'm Chad Stocker, and I play the bass. Most of the time we play at rock clubs.

Josh Malerman

Yeah, rock clubs. It's like, if you can just picture a smoky bar, a lot of drunk people.

Derek Berk

With a long-haired sound guy that's probably mad about something.

Alex Blumberg

The High Strung agreed to the library tour last December, and then they didn't think much about it. But Bill, meanwhile, was going around to library conferences pitching the idea. In the end, he booked 34 library shows, one every other day from June through August.

When he came back to the band with this information a couple of months later, not only had they sort of forgotten about it, but they'd had no idea it was going to consume their entire summer. I talked with them two days before the tour started, and they were a little freaked out, more than a little.

Derek Berk

I'm terrified. You know that?

Josh Malerman

No. I know. I know. Absolutely. It's like this weird, unknown thing for a band to do because we're not like a novelty act.

Derek Berk

This tour, I think, is geared for sixth-graders to 12th-graders, for the most part, and their parents.

Chad Stocker

I feel like we're almost going to be like tamed beasts. Watch my language.

Josh Malerman

Don't get too close, kids.

Chad Stocker

Cover the liquor up off the breath, you know?

Josh Malerman

We should be in a cage.

Chad Stocker

Yeah. We are playing inside the libraries most the time. And I went to one yesterday, and the guy showing me, he's like, "This is your stage." And it was, like, the reference desk.

[LAUGHTER]

I was like, "Oh. Yeah. Where do we plug in?" He was like, "Plug in?"

Alex Blumberg

Josh, Derek and Chad have known each other since middle school. They formed their band about five years ago in New York. Early on, Josh booked a couple of live shows so they could get used to playing in front of people. Once they got on the road, they liked it so much they didn't want to quit. They've been touring non-stop now for four years straight. They've played in 42 of the 50 states to all different crowds. In Austin, Texas, they played to an audience of over 1,000. But a show in New Orleans that they drove all night to get to didn't have a single person. Even the bartender left. There was one guy there, but he was passed out drunk the entire show.

They're in the position of a lot of indie bands: some critical recognition, one CD out, another one due this September, a website, something of a following. In short, a teeny bit of fame and not really any fortune.

Josh Malerman

We've been living off $10 a day, each, for four years now.

Derek Berk

Right.

Josh Malerman

Which is pretty nuts. No matter how much money we make the night before, we each just get $10 a day.

Alex Blumberg

Who decides that?

Josh Malerman

Our CFO.

Derek Berk

Me. I decided that three years ago.

Josh Malerman

A brilliant CFO.

Derek Berk

There's been no adjustment for cost of living.

[LAUGHTER]

Josh Malerman

He's not very progressive.

Derek Berk

No. I mean the dollar menu is still the dollar. Sometimes there's a buy-out, which is exciting.

Alex Blumberg

And that's, when?

Derek Berk

It's when they give you money. Some places you play at their restaurant too. But, if they don't have food there, they'll either order you a pizza, or something, or a burrito, or [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Or there's the elusive buy-out where they actually give you cash.

Josh Malerman

That's the best.

Derek Berk

Then you can buy whatever you want.

Chad Stocker

Cigarettes and a cheaper sandwich somewhere else.

Derek Berk

Right, and pocket the extra money.

Chad Stocker

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

I thought you meant you would take the money and go get something really, really good. But you're actually [INAUDIBLE] even worse.

Chad Stocker

No. You get something worse than what they would give you so you can save the money.

Alex Blumberg

I know this is a digression, but one of the things I found most charming about the band is this fact. A while ago, they saw some footage on TV of an old Motown act. Everyone in the group was wearing the same outfit. And they thought, now, those guys look together up there. We should do that. So, a couple of months ago, they started performing every show in identical uniforms.

Josh Malerman

Tight, white, really tight, white, outfits with blue stars up and down the sides, you know? If you can imagine Evel Knievel, I guess. And it's more fun for me, man, because I feel like a superhero when we wear those outfits. It separates you from the audience, or something, you know what I mean? It makes you into a television show, or a superhero, or something.

Alex Blumberg

So how does that work if you're wearing the same costume every night?

Josh Malerman

Yeah. That's a great follow-up question.

Chad Stocker

That is good. That's a very intelligent question.

Josh Malerman

For the first time ever, I'm really persistent about us cleaning something, because I want to make sure that we always have these uniforms to wear. And they can be outrageous if we wear them for three shows in a row without washing them, so we've just got to find a laundromat in every city, you know? I hang out. These guys don't. I go and do that. And I'm alone at these weird laundromats in every town we go to.

Chad Stocker

Josh is kind of--

Josh Malerman

In charge?

Chad Stocker

Josh is kind of in charge of cleaning the laundry.

[LAUGHTER]

Cleaning the get-ups. We call them get-ups. We're like, you got the get-ups? Yeah, they're in the bag. There's a get-up bag, too.

Alex Blumberg

The High Strung, in many ways, are the perfect band for this tour, because they're both very rock and roll and very library. They've all been to college. Chad wears round glasses. Josh says one of his main song writing inspirations is William Faulkner. He actually wrote an outline for his last album in which he describes his 12 songs, each a different take on optimism. And they're huge library patrons, and not just because they like to read.

Chad Stocker

The truth is, bands, nowadays, are in libraries all the time because there's the internet and stuff there. And when you're on the road, it's a valuable place to go for a band.

Josh Malerman

Yeah, It's our office.

Chad Stocker

It's like the field office.

Derek Berk

You got internet, and you got a clean toilet with, usually, there's toilet paper and a door that locks.

Alex Blumberg

Wait. Are are you telling me that you guys stop at the library in every--

Derek Berk

Yeah. Shave there.

Josh Malerman

We do. We usually shave there. Yeah. We're in a lot of libraries across the country.

Chad Stocker

I used to work at the Ann Arbor district library as a security guard there in college.

Josh Malerman

Oh, my gosh. It was all leading to this.

Chad Stocker

And we used to have to kick out people that had their shoes off, or if they smelled too bad and got complaints, or if we caught them cleaning up in the bathroom, and stuff. And then, years later, I'm doing that.

Alex Blumberg

I don't know if you've risen or fallen.

The next time I catch up with the band is at the Escanaba Public Library. It's the band's 25th library in their 34-library tour. And the audiences, they say, have been all over the place. Some have been high school kids, mainly 16- to 18-year-olds. Others, like this crowd, have skewed much younger. It's about 40 kids, mostly between the ages of nine and 14, many of them swinging their legs on those stackable metal library chairs, accompanied by grandparents or parents. The emcee of today's show is the Assistant Children's Librarian, Charlotte Oshe, who does her own librarian version of, hello Escanaba, are you ready to rock?

Charlotte Oshe

Hello, kids. Congratulations for finishing your summer reading program contracts. We are so proud of you. You are here to see a, what?

Girl

Concert?

Charlotte Oshe

Concert. Right.

Alex Blumberg

We're in a gray, carpeted conference room off the main floor of the library: fluorescent lights, a white board with a graph showing recent expenditures. This room is normally used for county budget meetings. The band, in regular street clothes for this tour, takes the floor.

Josh Malerman

How cool is it that your library does this, huh? This is awesome. OK. We are The High Strung. Yeah. Clap for your library. This is great.

[APPLAUSE]

Josh Malerman

Here It Comes Again. 1, 2, 3, 4.

[MUSIC - "HERE IT COMES AGAIN" BY THE HIGH STRUNG]

Alex Blumberg

The loudness definitely catches people off guard. Kids flinch, startled. Some of them cover their ears. Watching it all, I feel very nervous for the band, for the kids, for the parents who brought the kids, for everyone. When I ask the band about it later, they tell me nobody involved has any idea what to expect.

Josh Malerman

It's like, what is going on here? You feel like you're in a sociology experiment. This is let's put the loudest thing known to man inside the conference room of the library with a bunch of 10-year-old kids and see what happens.

[LAUGHS]

Chad Stocker

There was kids that were scared when we were in Brighton.

Alex Blumberg

In Brighton?

Chad Stocker

Yeah. Even though we were outside, they still had faces of disbelief. Or they were like, this is not what-- everyone's always telling me to be quiet here. This is not supposed to be happening.

Josh Malerman

They said that to us, right?

Chad Stocker

Yeah. Yeah, almost to where they were angered.

Alex Blumberg

That one girl said that there.

Chad Stocker

They were angered. Like, everything everyone's been telling me up to this point has been a lie.

[LAUGHS]

[MUSIC - "HERE IT COMES AGAIN" BY HIGH STRUNG]

Alex Blumberg

In the audience, no one dances or even moves, really. They all sit and watch, attentively but a little passively, like the way you'd watch someone reading aloud during story hour. Between songs, the band throws in some public service-y library messages.

Chad Stocker

Another exciting thing about libraries are-- and this is something that we need, terribly-- are maps and atlases. This is all reference material. You can check it out, but you can't check it out. You know what I'm saying?

So in these maps, we find our way all over the country. And you can even look up crazy places all over the world. I want to know if anyone has been to Sweden or Venezuela? No. OK. The reason I asked because this next song we made a video for for MTV, and if you lived in Sweden or Venezuela, you may have seen it, because that's the only place [INAUDIBLE].

This song is called Wretched Boy. 1, 2, 3, 4.

[MUSIC - "WRETCHED BOY" BY THE HIGH STRUNG]

Alex Blumberg

So here it is, the image of rock and roll and the image of the library going head to head. Bill Harmer hopes that the image of rock and roll will win out and that the library will seem cooler as a result of this bizarre collision. But what if the opposite proves true? The library wins, and this tour does nothing except make the band seem lame?

Alex Blumberg

Basically, you are being sort of retained to make this institution that is not necessarily seen as cool cooler. That's sort of a big responsibility. Do you guys feel cool enough?

Derek Berk

That's a weird thing. That's a really weird thing.

Josh Malerman

That's the weirdest question I've ever been asked.

Derek Berk

I think so. I think the public library-- That is a really weird question. I think the public library is really cool.

Josh Malerman

Sure, yes.

Derek Berk

But I think that maybe people don't know it, and maybe teens don't know it.

Josh Malerman

Are we cooler than the library? No. Are we cooler than the idea of the library? Maybe.

Alex Blumberg

As the show progresses, it seems less and less like a rock show in a library, and more and more like just a rock show. Josh gets on top of a table for his guitar solo and jumps off at the end.

A group of adolescent girls sits in front of Chad, the bass player. He's one of those happy musicians who can't help but smile an adorable smile while he plays super complicated riffs. You can practically see the communal crush develop. Between songs, they flirt with him. One girl complains that her tan this summer came out usually orange and that she looks like an Oompa Loompa.

[YOUNG GIRLS LAUGHTER]

Chad Stocker

What?

[YOUNG GIRLS TALKING ALL AT ONCE]

Chad Stocker

Aren't Oompa Loompas green?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Chad Stocker

Oh. I like their pants. Oompa Loompa's got cool, cool clothes. 1, 2, 3.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Alex Blumberg

I know the show is going well when, at one point, I notice that Josh has actually broken one of his guitar strings. By the time the head children's librarian comes out and does the librarian version of let's give it up for the band, I said let's give it up for the band, one thing's for sure: this county library conference room has been rocked harder than it's ever been rocked before.

Charlotte Oshe

Boys and girls, would you truly let these gentlemen know how much we appreciate them? Come on, really let them know.

[APPLAUSE AND SCREAMS]

Alex Blumberg

But the question is, was it rocked hard enough to actually change the image of the library? I talked to scores of kids at three different library shows in three different towns. Maybe half are what you'd call library kids, part of the teen reading club, or on a first-name basis with the local librarian. The rest just saw ads in the paper, or their parents did. But everyone talked about the library tour the way this group of teenagers in Iron Mountain did. They're all standing outside the show, wearing black, heavy metal T-shirts.

Alex Blumberg

So if you had to describe the way you thought of the library before this concert, what would you have said? What were the adjectives that would come to your mind if you thought about that?

Boy

Dull.

Boy

Quiet.

Boy

Very quiet.

Boy

Activities.

Alex Blumberg

And now?

Boy

Amazing.

Alex Blumberg

Come on. Seriously?

Boy

Yes.

Boy

Yeah.

Boy

It's better than it was before, anyways. I liked it.

Boy

Yeah, because before it was just old ladies. Now it's young people.

Boy

It was a lot of fun.

Alex Blumberg

And then there was this 11-year-old in Menominee, who had planned on going fishing, but decided to check out the rock show instead.

Alex Blumberg

Did it make you think differently about the library?

Boy

Yes, it did. It made me think about, hey, if librarians could do this, make a library not very much a library with making it loud, basically, anyone could do anything.

Alex Blumberg

The High Strung are enjoying the library tour as well. Librarians, as a group, tend to be better at organizing and promoting rock shows than actual rock promoters, as well as much more likely to address you as honey. Also, it's the first tour they've been on where they don't have to drive to another state after the concert is over. They've all been spending a lot of time with their girlfriends. And, even though they're playing a library show almost every day, because they're mostly during the day and because they're mostly within driving distance of Detroit, it's been a very relaxed summer and, by their standards, lucrative.

Alex Blumberg

How much are you guys getting paid for this?

Derek Berk

Oh, that's none of your damned business.

Josh Malerman

More than we normally get, I would say.

Chad Stocker

On the high end of average.

Josh Malerman

High end of average for what we usually make at our shows.

Chad Stocker

Yeah.

Josh Malerman

And we won't have to wait at the end of the night for some promoter to sell a bunch of cocaine down the street to have enough money to pay for our guarantee. You know?

Alex Blumberg

Overall, the band is surprised how similar the library tour has been to a regular tour, except for one thing. On a regular tour, they don't stick around for a Q&A 20 minutes after every show.

Girl

Some people in this room would like to know if you have a girlfriend, and how old you are.

Boy

How did your families take it when you decided to start a rock band?

Girl

Do you guys live together?

Girl

Did you guys read and go to libraries when you were teens?

Girl

Why isn't the drummer wearing any shoe laces?

Josh Malerman

I didn't think of this before we started this whole thing, but I really think that, a lot of kids, this is their first rock show, and I did not think of that angle at all when this whole thing started. Like, wow, we really are-- I really remember the first time I saw a bunch of grown men dancing around, making noise together, and people watching. It's like that's an experience. So yeah. And surprised I just never thought of that.

And now, I can't really explain it. The delivery of it all just has a different meaning to me now. It's more weighted or something. Like, oh, wow, this move here, or when I turn to Derek and both of us just do the silliest thing like slam our instruments at the same time, that's going to be an image in that child's mind. They're going to remember that when they remember their first concert, or whatever. So suddenly, things are not weighted with pressure, but weighted with a little more meaning.

[MUSIC - "CLOWN CAR" BY THE HIGH STRUNG]

Alex Blumberg

The last show I attend is in Menominee, a small town in the far north of the state. The band is playing in the library central reading room. You couldn't make it up any better. It's a beautiful place with big picture windows looking out on the water and a skylight, rows of bookshelves spread out to either side.

The crowd is the biggest age range I've seen. There's a couple of high school kids with the neo-ska punk look, several middle-schoolers. In the very front row, a kid who can't be more than four years old holding a huge deck of Pokemon cards in one hand and a stuffed bunny in the other. He's covering his ears with his elbows, but he's bouncing wildly up and down on his chair, and he's got a huge smile on his face. A lot of the kids in the audience have a look like that, like I can't explain what I'm watching, but I really like it. When I talk to them about it later, it's hard for them to articulate. "I like the way it made me feel," they say. Or "I like the way one of them will be going one way and one another." Or simply, "I like the way it vibrated on me. That was the funnest part."

Of course, if you're selling teens on the library by saying now it's a place that rocks, then you pretty much have to keep booking rock shows. And Bill Harmer would be fine with that. He'd love it if rock and roll were as common in Michigan's libraries as story corner. His colleagues may take some convincing, though.

During the show in Menominee, I went downstairs to the check-out desk. All the librarians had their hands over their ears, or shouting at each other to be heard. I asked them how many of these concerts could they stand each year. One of the youth services librarians, a balding man with a mustache, didn't even try to talk over the noise. He just held up his hand with his index finger to his thumb. Zero, he mouthed.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our program. The High Strung are on the internet at www.thehighstrung.com. It's been a year since Alex did that story. And this summer, The High Strung have expanded to a nationwide library tour: 60 libraries, 42 states.

[MUSIC - "SHUT UP IN THE LIBRARY" BY BARRY LOUIS POLISAR]

Coming up, Jonathan Goldstein and his own father. Quien es mas macho? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Goldstein On Goldstein.

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, Image Makers, stories of people and institutions who are worried what the world thinks of them, and who take action, decisive action. In this half of the show, we have a son who wants to know what his father makes of him, and a father who needs a little image boost with his own son. Let's move on to Act Two of our program.

Act Two, Goldstein On Goldstein. This second story's a subject that perhaps we don't get enough of here on the public radio: manliness. I find that even the men I know who you think would be least concerned with manliness are still completely concerned with it.

I have this friend, Michael, who is constantly talking about what is manly and what is not manly. If you do something that he thinks is impressive, the way that he tells you that he thinks it's impressive is he says to you, very manly. He says it all the time. And he's gay. He's a gay. It's almost like being a gay has made him more obsessed with manliness than any of my straight friends. If you're a man, I think it just comes with the territory.

Jonathan Goldstein's been thinking about his own manliness lately. He has this story.

Jonathan Goldstein

I've always assumed that my father, Buzz Goldstein, has never seen me as an especially manly guy. As a kid, I did not play sports. I had no interest in tools, and I did not dream of muscle cars. My father, though, was an old-school manly man.

Growing up, I watched him charm his way out of traffic tickets, whistle for cabs, and say things like va-va-voom, all things I cannot now help but think of as being a part of a manliness from a bygone era. When he poured whiskey, it was always into a washed-out mustard jar, and it was always at least three or four ounces in a shot. Or the way he had of saying, "Listen pal" in his undershirt and flip-flops, his very extended finger, as rigid as a pool cue, aimed straight at your face, never failed to let you know, in no uncertain terms, who was the alpha-est male in the room. Even the random things my father did seemed drenched in a kind of casual, hairy-knuckled machismo. Like, the fact that he liked grape soda made that soda seem infinitely more barrel-chested than a gutless glass of strawberry pop or a [? fay ?] can of nectar.

Another thing that I consider manly about my father is that he is a loud man. He is genetically incapable of whispering. When we go to movies, he will turn to me right in the middle and say, just like we were sitting alone, "Isn't that the guy who played the father on The Rockford Files?"

My dad is now 70, and he still keeps curling weights beside his bed. I am 35, and my own brand of manliness, a gentler, less in your face and, dare I say, woosier form of manliness, is something I've always attributed to a generational difference between my father and me. My father grew up in the Bronx in the '40s, a time and place where threatening out your window to strangle someone's barking dog was merely a friendly morning hello. I wanted to talk with my father about the things that he holds to be manly, and maybe in so doing, figure out what it was that I lacked back then, and still lack to this day.

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you think there's certain things that a man should know how to do, like how to handle himself? Should he know how to box a little bit?

Buzz Goldstein

Yes. Yeah. A man should know how to defend himself. In other words, a man should not have to take any guff from anybody.

Jonathan Goldstein

And my father doesn't. Whereas, above my head, there is a sign that reads, please deposit guff.

When I was eight, my father decided to teach me how to box. We stood in the foyer of our apartment, knuckle to knuckle, the transgressiveness of it making me giddy and, as my mother would say, overheated. To my eight-year-old brain, the idea of play-fighting with my father ranked somewhere between eating a sidewalk-length roll of candy buttons and watching the Globetrotters on the Wide World of Sports.

My father stood beneath the chandelier, dodging, weaving, and jabbing, like a young Willie Pep. I thought this was great. With my arms doing a kind of Dutch windmill, I leapt into the fray, and almost immediately, my mouth connected with one of his fists. My lip split and began to leak blood all over the powder blue, shag carpeting. I started to cry.

Then I have this memory of my mother on my father's back, pulling at his hair in a crazed attempt to keep him from mauling me. I cried even harder. I was crying because I had never been hit in the face before, and the pain was so completely new and alien to me. But I was also crying because I felt so bad for my father. Here he was, just trying out his brand of father and son kibitzing with his kid, and now he had to deal with my blood on his hands.

Even so, a few days later at a family get-together, with my father by my side, I couldn't stop myself from showing every single person I met my puffed-out lip. Then, excitedly, I would tell them that it was my father who had given me this puffed-out lip. Our brawl in the foyer would be the last time my father and I would ever play-fight together.

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you feel that smoking lends a man a certain kind of manliness?

Buzz Goldstein

Oh, yeah. Don't forget, we grew up with a certain stereotype when we were young.

Jonathan Goldstein

You might not remember this, but I remember one time we were on our way to, maybe it was a bar mitzvah. We stopped at a gas station to get some gas, and you picked me up a pack of cigarettes. And you said that it's important for a young man to smoke at a social gathering.

Buzz Goldstein

I did? How old were you at the time?

Jonathan Goldstein

I was probably about, maybe 19.

Buzz Goldstein

Really? I did, eh? Well, because, probably, at that time, that was my way of thinking. Why did I start smoking? Not because I enjoyed smoking. The reason I smoked was because I was, first of all, I was never as tall as my friends. I was always shorter for my age, and it made me feel taller. It made me feel as if I belonged, and it gave me something to do with my hands.

Jonathan Goldstein

Wait. Just go back for a second. How did smoking make you feel taller?

Buzz Goldstein

Because all the people, at that time, all the people were smoking. My father smoked. My brother was smoking.

Jonathan Goldstein

How old were you when you started smoking?

Buzz Goldstein

15. So I started at a pretty young age.

Jonathan Goldstein

Wait. If I was a taller man, would you have felt that smoking was as important?

Buzz Goldstein

Probably, yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah?

Buzz Goldstein

Yeah. Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

But still, during my teen years, on the odd occasion when I did smoke, rather than taking my cues from Humphrey Bogart or Danny Zuko, gritting the butt between my teeth like I meant business and ashing often with forceful, deliberate taps, I chose to smoke like David Bowie circa 1972, allowing my cigarette to hang limply from my lips, pretending to be too whacked out on goof balls to care that my ash was six inches long.

My obsession with David Bowie, a languidly, androgynous glam rocker, wasn't something that troubled my father so much as it simply wasn't anything he could understand. My father preferred singers like Joe Cocker, men who deliver their lyrics as though painfully screaming them from a locked toilet stall. In his day, liking someone like David Bowie would have been the domain of degenerate officers in black and white movies about Nazis.

But to this day, whenever I'm over at my parents and Bowie's on Entertainment Tonight, my father will call me over and say, your pal's on TV. And we will both sit there in silence watching David Bowie, both of us wondering what the other one could possibly be thinking.

The thing is, my father is much more forthright when it comes to letting my friends know what he's thinking. With my friends, he is forthright on a great many subjects.

Jonathan Goldstein

If we're downtown, and we're hanging around with one of my friends like, say, Howard, you'll be more inclined to point out a good-looking woman, or something like that, in a way that you probably wouldn't do with me as much.

Buzz Goldstein

Yeah. I guess I'd feel more comfortable because you're my son. You know, these are things that you don't do with your son. But I've pointed out good-looking women with you, Johnny. I've walked with you. I mean, look, I've got eyes in my head. My father did it with me. He'd look at a woman and say, "Oh boy, va-va-voom!"

Jonathan Goldstein

There was one time I remember, where we were walking through, I think it was a parking lot. And I was, maybe, about 18, 19. And we were passing by this other young woman. And you turned to me. And you noticed that that woman looked at me, and you said, "You see that woman over there? I could tell that you could make her."

Buzz Goldstein

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

And then you said, "You see, I could tell these things. You can't tell these kind of things because you're more into books."

Buzz Goldstein

You were more preoccupied, yeah. You were more preoccupied. These weren't the things that were of the greatest interest to you.

Jonathan Goldstein

And so you thought maybe I would miss something like that?

Buzz Goldstein

Yeah. I guess I was more aware of these things. You know, as a young man, I went out with a lot of women. I had a lot of experience and I could instinctively tell these things.

Jonathan Goldstein

And so how would you characterize that difference between me and you?

Buzz Goldstein

I was a different type. I wanted to wear nice clothes, and go out with good-looking women, and drive a nice car. And you were never interested in these sort of things.

Jonathan Goldstein

Mm-hmm.

I've always taken my father saying that I was more into books or I was never into these kinds of things as being a polite way of saying that I just wasn't a regular guy. And I have to say, I've never felt hurt by that, nor have I taken it personally. From a young age, I've always believed that defying familial expectations is an important part of self-actualization. I learned that in books.

Buzz Goldstein

Whining is unmanly, complaining and bitching a lot.

Jonathan Goldstein

So do you think there's a certain kind of stoicism, that that's necessary?

Buzz Goldstein

I don't think. It can't be forced. It's either you have it or you don't.

Jonathan Goldstein

When you think of me, do you think of me as possessing a certain quiet manliness?

Buzz Goldstein

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

No, I want you to be honest.

Buzz Goldstein

I'm being honest, Johnny, because I feel that you have done a lot of things that I wish I had done when I was younger. You were more assertive with things that you didn't-- you see, I went along with things a lot, whereas you didn't. You see?

Let me give you an example of what I mean. You know my mother was a very domineering woman, even after I married. I just accepted the decisions made by them, and that was unmanly, yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

My father's mother had talked my father into quitting high school so he could get a job and help support the family. It was a move he always regretted.

I remember my father's mother as a small woman with a knack for getting my father to do whatever she wanted. Like, if she needed a lift to the hairdresser in the middle of the day, he would drop everything at once and go. The phone would ring. He would listen in silence, and he would go. Even once my father was married, his mother would still interfere in all sorts of small day-to-day things.

Buzz Goldstein

For example, we were shopping one day on Kings Highway, your mother and I, and we saw a cute fireplace. It wasn't a real fireplace, it was an electric fireplace. And we fell in love with it. It was black metal, and we were ready to buy it. And I happened to bring up the topic to my mother and she just pooh-poohed, and just discouraged us, and discouraged me. And then I changed my mind as a result of that. It was impractical. And what do you need this for? And what are you wasting your money on garbage like that?

And I'll be honest with you, that was unmanly. OK, if you want to talk about being unmanly, that was unmanly. I should have taken a strong position in saying, look, this is between me and my wife. We enjoy this. It's going to give us happiness, and it's none of your business. You know? I respect you. I could have said I love you, but you've got to keep your nose out of my business and what goes on between me and my wife. These are things that I never did. And, if I were like you, my mother would have never gotten away with the things that she did.

Jonathan Goldstein

I really didn't expect this. Of course, I've never doubted that my father liked me, but I always felt that it was in spite of what I wasn't and not because of what I was. And what I was was a man who was willing to ignore his own mother.

By the time my father was my age now, he had already served in the Army overseas. He had already entered himself in Golden Glove boxing matches, had two kids, and was working two jobs. And me? When my mother tells me not to put my feet up on the coffee table, I continue to put my feet up on the coffee table. This is what my father is impressed by. This is what makes me a man. I don't want to say this disappoints me, but sometimes I can't help wanting to be manly in exactly the way that he's manly.

When I was a child, my father had chronic back pain, and I was very proud of how loud he could yell in agony. So great was his pain and his rage about his pain, that, one night, he actually yanked the bed board off the bed. After it happened, I would brag to my friends about how strong my father was. From then on, whenever I pulled off some unexpected physical tour de force, like opening a stuck jar of Nutella, my face as red and squinty as a clenched fist, my friends would say that I was pulling out the Goldstein bed board. That's the kind of manly I want to be. That's when I feel at one with my legacy.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the radio show, Wire Tap, on the CBC, and the author of the novel, Lenny Bruce is Dead.

Jonathan Goldstein

All right. Talk at the volume you're going to be speaking in.

Buzz Goldstein

This is the volume that I'm going to be speaking in.

Jonathan Goldstein

Why don't we start off by giving me a real listen pal.

Buzz Goldstein

Listen pal, when I speak, I like people to listen to me and pay attention to what I'm saying. Do you understand what I'm saying? Do you hear me?

Jonathan Goldstein

Give me a listen pal along with imagining that someone just cut in front of you in line.

Buzz Goldstein

Listen, pal. Do you know there's a line? We've all been waiting here for quite a while. There's a line that goes in the back. You don't start here in the middle or go to the front, you go to the back.

Jonathan Goldstein

All right. Now you have to get a little bit more aggressive because he's not listening to you.

Buzz Goldstein

Hey! What are you, dense? Don't you hear what I'm saying to you? You don't listen? Don't ignore me. Don't ignore me because I'm not going to let you go in front of me. Don't ignore me. That only infuriates me.

Jonathan Goldstein

And that's the last thing he wants to do.

Buzz Goldstein

That's right.

[MUSIC - "I'M WAITING FOR THE MAN" BY DAVID BOWIE]

Act Three. Heart Shaped Box.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Heart Shaped Box. Seven years ago, Doug Hill was diagnosed with a rare brain disease called frontal lobe dementia. On our show a while back, we had a story about Doug's son, Nick, who was very young at the time and struggling to understand the disease.

His disease slowly shrinks your brain. Your personality goes, your logic, your emotions. It's pretty brutal, and it's fatal. About a year ago, Doug got much worse and his family started preparing for the end. And, as you might understand, it's been a long, slow, complicated goodbye over the years that he has deteriorated.

The therapist said that, for Nick to find closure, for Nick, especially to understand his feelings when his dad finally died, what he was going to need is a picture in his head of who his dad really was back when he was well. Doug needed to be real if Nick was going to be able to let him go. And the job of producing this important biography of this person who Nick, kind of, didn't exactly really know anymore, fell to Nick's mom, Julie.

Julie Hill

My son is 10 years old. He's tall, and thin, and blonde, and freckled, and smart, and funny, and generous. In other words, Nick is his father all over again. Yet, Nick knows so little about his dad. He's too young to remember what Doug was like before he got sick.

His father was far more than the early symptoms of the disease, like Doug constantly repeating himself, or compulsively eating every sweet in sight, or irrationally walking in front of moving traffic. So giving this complete picture of Doug, this hugely important job, falls to me. I'm 43 years old and both my parents are alive. That makes me supremely unqualified, not to mention overwhelmed. I married Doug 20 years ago. Where do I even start? Apparently, with objects.

My friend Adrian lost both her parents by the time she was 19. She's told me she still yearns for stuff that her parents touched or carried around, that somehow they connect her to them. So when Doug got sick, Adrian told me to collect simple, everyday items, and that, one day, they'd mean the world to Nick. So early on, Doug's things started making their way into a box, a casket of memories.

The box is about the size of a child's shoe box, and it's made of tin. The remnants of all the colors it once was, red, and green, and yellow, poke through its rusty patina. Long ago, it sat in Doug's grandmother's home in the WASP-y end of Indianapolis, and Doug loved it then as much as Nick does now.

Now the box sits on top of a Barrister bookcase in our hallway. It's deliberately up high so that Nick has to ask a grown-up to get it down. Staying slightly out of reach keeps it precious. Plus, this way, the story that the box contains has a ready narrator. There's no master plan for what's been collected: eyeglasses, a press pass, a passport, pictures. Often I've wondered, how could these things be so important?

For the first six years after Doug got sick, Nick didn't want to look inside the box. It scared him. But as his daddy got sicker, on Saturday afternoons I started bringing the box down, combing through the stuff myself. Slowly, Nick would tread to my side. And now he calls the box his treasure. But each time Nick and I go through the box, the discussion is different and surprising, never quite going the way I think it will.

One of the smaller items in the box is a laminated work ID with CNN's logo. It has Doug's name and the title Video Journalist on it, plus an amazingly handsome picture of him at 22 years old. When Nick pulled it out, it seemed like a great opportunity to make Doug human. I told Nick how his dad was a studio cameraman there, and how, one night, the handle on the camera's wheeled pedestal hooked onto Doug's belt loop as he walked away. Doug's camera was live, so the anchorman and the whole newsdesk had to list to keep up with Doug's rolling shot.

Nick laughed a little, but he steered the conversation in a totally different direction. "Did daddy ever work for Fox News?" "No, never." "Oh, thank God. Daddy was a Democrat." And while I thought Nick might want to know his dad was capable of making a goofy mistake, what Nick took away from the work ID was that his daddy leaned left.

Nick loves looking at the pictures, pictures of Doug, especially when he was a kid, when he was 10 in Florida, and when he was 12, sitting at a birthday party with his namesake grandfather. And even more precious are the pictures of Nick and Doug together. There's one of Doug holding our very surprised 18-month-old boy upside down. And one shows Nick as a toddler sitting on his dad's lap as they steer a boat. Yet another shows them sleeping next to each other with Nick curled against his dad.

The questions come again. "When did that happen?" I try to remember as many details as I can. "We were playing hide-and-seek in the living room when Daddy started swinging you around." "We drove a golf cart to the marina in Florida the day we went out on Uncle Larry's boat. And when you napped together, we were at a beach house near Charleston."

At the bottom of the box hides Doug's wedding ring. It came off years ago when his hand swelled and the ring cut off circulation. Nick loves to touch it, sliding this metal hula hoop around his number two-pencil fingers.

But some of the objects in the box aren't as popular as others. Nick has never put on Doug's eyeglasses. Cuff links and tuxedo studs sit untouched along with the antique pocket watch I bought Doug for our 10th wedding anniversary. But time and again, it's clear that my friend Adrian was right: sometimes throw-away items have the most meaning.

A few months ago, Nick wanted new toys. The policy in our house is he buys toys for himself with his own allowance money. He'd been eyeing some Dungeons & Dragons figures and was short by $10. He was greatly disappointed, not wanting to wait a few more paydays. Then I almost saw the light bulb flash over Nick's head. "I know. I could use the money from Daddy's change jar."

When Doug was well, each night he'd come home from work, drop his wallet on the table, and dump his change into a blue ceramic jar. Sometime after Doug moved to the nursing home four years ago, the change jar found a new job: it holds up a family portrait that had lost its easel. This jar has hid on my mantle in plain sight for years, forgotten, at least by me. I pulled it down.

For more than an hour, our hands got dirty counting the change that once sat in Doug's pockets. We separated the pennies from the dimes and the quarters from the nickles. And we found things like a New York City subway token, and Canadian pennies, and a receipt for a haircut from 1998. The entire time we talked about his dad, the man I made this beautiful boy with.

We counted up more than $50, a fortune to a fourth grader. Nick was amazed. "What would Daddy want me to do with all this money?" "Well, he'd probably want you to save some, then spend some on fun, like those toys you really want." Nick was thrilled, aching for his new toys.

On Saturday, we made the trip to the bank and then bought his heart's desire. Back home, Nick ripped open the boxes, joyous for the score, but 10 minutes later he came to me with regretful eyes. "What's wrong, Nick?" He sighed, and swallowed hard, and began to cry. "Daddy's money isn't in the house any more." Pennies, dimes, and nickels, stuff he'd barely bend over to pick up. He felt he'd betrayed his father treating those coins merely as currency. I held him. I tried explaining that these toys, the money in the bank, these were like gifts from his father. But it didn't help. "Those coins were Daddy's, and they'll never be here again."

We've lost so much of Doug already. Long ago, we let go of his humor, his writings, his displays of love and kindness. Inch by inch, we've buried him, with each day bringing yet another tiny, unbearable loss. So losing these little things, even just pennies, it's the last straw. It's why the box is so important. It's where these treasures from Doug remain safe for Nick, for Nick, but not for me. I have a different treasure trove of Doug's love, and he stands right next to me. He's tall, and thin, and blonde, and freckled, and smart, and funny, and generous, and he's 10 years old.

Ira Glass

Julie Hill, in Chicago. Three months after she put together this story, Doug finally died.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You know, you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who is actually sitting right in our studio today. For once, he's right here. Torey, why don't you just get over to this mic. Right here. Don't be nervous. Here, I'll open your mic.

Kristy Kruger

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Ira Glass

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

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