Transcript

397:

2010
Transcript

Originally aired 01.01.2010

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/397

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Joa Marcu

OK, so we're looking at 2010. Next year. What does your higher power want you to know? Asking your higher self to guide your hands. What does that look like, 2010?

Ira Glass

In the back room of a crystal shop in San Francisco, a spiritual adviser named Joa Marcu is doing a tarot card reading for a woman named Ashli Lewis. In her car on the way to the reading, Ashli explained to me why she was going at all. She's not somebody who especially believes in psychics and readers and all that, but going now and then over the last decade and a half, she has always gotten the same exact message from these people.

Ashli Lewis

You're going to be incredibly successful. And usually it came with the addition that I would be incredibly wealthy.

Ira Glass

Also sometimes-- famous. And not just sort of successful or somewhat wealthy or semi-famous. The prediction is always to the max.

The first time it happened was in 1996. She was at South By Southwest in Austin, and a friend had dragged her to an astrologer's table there.

Ashli Lewis

And the guy, you know, he quickly did my chart or whatever. And all of a sudden he goes, oh my god. He goes, I knew somebody would be walking around this weekend with this chart. He goes, you're the one. He goes, big, big money. Big, big money. Incredible success.

And I'm just kind of-- I kind of go-- well, I didn't really think much of it at all.

Ira Glass

A few years later, on her 35th birthday, she took a trip to Santa Fe. Decided to go to a psychic as a birthday treat to herself. And this woman made the same prediction during the reading.

Ashli Lewis

But it didn't really hit me until I was leaving her house and I was walking away, and I'm walking down the street. And she chases after me, and she catches up with me, and she's like, look. She says, I have to make you understand something. She says, I don't think you get what I'm talking about. She says, when I tell you you're going to be successful, I don't mean kind of successful. I mean successful in a way that you rarely see. I mean really successful, and you just need to get ready.

Ira Glass

Two years later, Ashli was visiting Seattle and, yet another reader delivers exactly the same message. Massive success, massive wealth, massive fame. And Ashli asked this woman, why is this always the same wherever she goes? And the woman said, your spirit guide is really, really loud. It's like he's behind you, yelling this at me.

Ashli says that she's not even somebody who wants spectacular money or fame. She's still a skeptic about psychics, though she says that she's had a few predictions come true in spooky ways. Like when she was 18, a friend dragged her to see this old woman who didn't take money and supposedly had a gift from God-- seeing the future.

Ashli Lewis

She said to me, do you know a Bill? And I remembered later thinking, you know, that's such a common name. But I really don't know a Bill, except for this ex-boyfriend, a friend of mine. And she said, Bill Mc-, Mc-something Irish. Don't worry, you will. And my husband is Bill Mc- Mc-something Irish.

Ira Glass

What is his name?

Ashli Lewis

Bill McLachlan.

Ira Glass

And what was your relationship with him at the time? Like, what did you know about him?

Ashli Lewis

Oh, I didn't meet him for like another four years after that, three years. It was later that I remembered that she had asked me that question.

Ira Glass

Creepy, right?

So another seer told Ashli that her money and her fame would happened by the time that she's 50 years old, and she's 46 now, and she figured, OK. Time is running out. 2010 really might be the year. 2010 could be when this is all going to go down. And the only question was, how?

Ira Glass

So can I ask you, are you thinking, like, OK, maybe you're going to go on American Idol?

Ashli Lewis

I'm past the age requirement.

Ira Glass

Like, would you ever go on a reality show?

Ashli Lewis

No.

Ira Glass

Have you been thinking about sleeping with the president?

Ashli Lewis

Not the current one, and can't say the last one either. So no.

Joa Marcu

All right. So to begin our reading, Ashli, what I want you to do--

Ira Glass

Which brings us back to the crystal shop. It's been five years since Ashli's had a reading. She's had a baby since the last time. Her life has changed a lot. And she came here because she wants to know if her fate has changed, also. Maybe she's no longer destined for money and fame.

And what she hears from Joa is disappointing. Mostly the reading just seems really, really generic. Joa tells her that there's something new and hopeful on the horizon for Ashli in 2010, but force inside her, negativity, is blocking this from happening.

Joa Marcu

There's a part of you, a judging part of you, says no. Who do you think you are. You know, whatever that negative voice is.

Ira Glass

No mention of wealth. No mention of fame.

Outside on the street, afterwards, Ashli tells me that despite all that, despite Joa's reading, she still thinks she's heading for that fate that all the other psychics have predicted. Maybe in 2010, maybe not.

Ira Glass

So you think you're going to have a good year?

Ashli Lewis

Oh, I always have a good year.

Ira Glass

Really?

Ashli Lewis

Yeah. It always gets better for me.

Ira Glass

I suppose if you're going to go to psychics, this is a sensible way to do it. Ashli will look into a crystal ball and then she'll pick and choose what to believe about what it reveals. Which happens a lot this time of year.

We got the idea for today's radio show from some conversations that I had with guy from The Economist magazine. The Economist, once a year, heads out on this mission to see into the future. They try to predict the coming year. All of their editors, all their writers devote a full issue to this.

I am a fan of the Economist. I'm a subscriber. It's well-written, it's well-edited. I like the voice of the magazine. And full disclosure, they've been an underwriter of our show now and then.

That said, I think this project where they predict the coming year, it's totally ridiculous. You have these great reporters who have to write about, for instance, what's going to happen in China in the year 2010, and they bring so much knowledge to this question. But in the end, because no one can know the future, they end up making these kind of equivocal-- on the one hand, on the other hand-- kinds of predictions. "China wants to be respected as a world power, but it doesn't want to do the things that a great world power does, and so it stands at a crossroads." Who cares?

As a reader, you're basically in the same position that Ashli is in. There's a bunch of contradictory things that might or might not happen. Believe whichever you want.

And here at our radio show we thought, what if somebody tried to forecast the coming year, but instead of those "maybe it'll be this way, maybe it'll be that way" kinds of essays that you see everywhere this time of year, what if they went for real predictions? Real predictions of things that are actually, no kidding, going to happen this year? To them, to people they know?

And so that's what we're doing. Today we have five predictions in five acts, including a death, a birth, a sixth grader's fate in school, and just for some scope, the fate of the Middle East.

Want to see the future? Want to see what 2010 holds? Well, stay with us.

Act One. Chronicle Of A Death Foretold.

Shalom Auslander

2010 is not going to be a good year for me, mostly because it's going to be a terrible year for my friend Lisa, who's going to die. That's what the doctors say. Three months ago, they gave her six months to live. Lisa, according to the doctors, will die sometime in late February, possibly early March.

The day after the doctors gave her the news, her husband Jason came over to our house. Jason and Lisa are our next door neighbors. My wife and I don't like people as a rule, so it was something of a miracle that we don't just like Jason and Lisa, that they are two of our favorite people in the world, and live right next door. Our list of favorite people is a short one, approximately two people. And by late February, possibly early March, that list is going to be cut right in half.

Six months, said Jason. And though it's news I knew would eventually come, I began to feel faint. Lisa has stage four metastatic cancer. On the plus side, ten years ago, the doctors gave her two years to live. Five years ago, they gave her just one year to live. I am trying to remain hopeful. Perhaps in another two years, they'll give her thirty seconds to live, and she can just prove them all wrong one more time, before even leaving the exam room.

I hugged Jason. We tried not to cry.

When he leaves, my wife is crestfallen. She's inconsolable. I try to console her. "Screw 'em," I said. "Maybe Lisa is one of those stories you always hear about, where the doctors give someone a week to live and they live ten more years." "She was one of those stories," said my wife, "ten years ago."

She had a point. Eventually, if you follow them long enough, even the happiest stories end unhappily.

I was a child when my grandmother's older sister Henni died. Baba, as we called our grandmother, was already in her 70s, and was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. There was a memorial service at our home. Everyone was sad except for Baba, who came through the front door, saw the house full of people, and assumed it was a surprise birthday party for her.

This is my first experience with the ending of life, and watching Baba, it seemed that dementia was a pretty good way to go through it. Baba smiled and clapped and thanked everyone for coming. Then my mother took her aside, sat her on the couch in the den, and gave her the news that her sister Henni had died. Baba gasped, pulled her hair, and began to wail. "Oh, Henni," she cried. "Henni, Henni, Henni!" My mother held her and stroked her hair and asked me to get her a glass of water.

After a few minutes Baba had recovered. She asked me if I was in school and if I liked it. I told her that I was, and that I did. And then she smiled and apologized and asked me who I was.

I was about to answer her when a well-meaning guest approached and gently clasped Baba's hand. "Pearl," he said, "I'm so sorry about Henni." "What about Henni?" asked Baba. "What happened to Henni?"

It was a rough morning for Baba. There was much gasping, much pulling of hair, and much wailing. Every time she forgot about her sister, another well-meaning cousin came over, expressed his condolences, and tore Baba's heart out anew. Perhaps, I quietly suggested to my mother, everyone should just keep their stupid best wishes to themselves. At last, they did.

Baba, for her part, stayed on the couch in the living room, smiling, sipping her water, and enjoying her birthday party. "This really is such a nice surprise," she said to me. "It's a great party," I said. "Everyone's here," she said. "They love you," I replied. Baba looked up at me and smiled. "And who are you?" she asked.

In the other room, people sobbed. I moved a pillow aside and sat down beside Baba, preferring the joyful company of the delusional to the miserable company of the sane.

By mid-January, Lisa will be getting worse. She won't come out much, not even up to our place for the occasional dinner. Jason's voice will sound wearier if he even answers the phone, and by February, we probably won't hear from him at all. Perhaps they just want to be alone together. Perhaps they've put their trays up, assumed the crash position, and are waiting for impact.

That's about when I'll begin to get angry at science. "It's 2010," I'll complain, "and they can't even cure cancer? How goddamn hard can that be?"

By early March, I imagine, I'll start reading philosophy books, the more miserable and convoluted the better, looking for answers. The something something of existence, or the whatever-otics of mortality. I'll go to the information counter at the bookstore and ask for invented titles that sound like the kind of book I'm looking for.

Do you have a book called Death Without Sorrow? How about Why Life is Relentlessly Cruel and Terminally Oppressive? Not sure of the author.

My grandfather, Baba's husband, was one of the kindest people in my life. We called him Zaida. Zaida always seemed to make the best of any situation, to keep positive even in the face of unrelentingly negative situations. When Baba's Alzheimer's progressed beyond a manageable point, he moved with her into a home for the aged. She lived upstairs with the patients, and he lived downstairs with the spouses.

I was 17 and went to visit them after school on Friday afternoons. Sometimes sitting in his room beside his bed, you could hear them up there, the demented, the delusional, the dying, yelling and cursing and crying out. Fortunately, while the patients upstairs were losing their minds, the spouses downstairs were losing their hearing, and there wasn't a television on the floor that wasn't set to maximum volume.

Zaida would ask me about school and we'd talk about my plans for after graduation. Baba and Zaida had been married for over 50 years, and he visited her up there every day. He joked about the nonsensical things she said to him, the insults she flung at the nurses. He gave me hope. If he could find laughter in this hell, maybe there could be hope for us all. Maybe death didn't have to destroy the life around it.

And then Baba died. Zaida refused to walk. He refused to get out of bed. One of his toes became gangrenous and the doctors removed it.

I went to visit them. I told him about school and what I planned to do after graduation.

"It's a lie," he said. "What?" I asked. "The golden years," he replied. "There's nothing golden about the golden years." And then he died.

Getting together is not my thing. I could do without getting together. I'd rather be stuck in an elevator. At least in an elevator, most people agree they'd rather not be there, and there's no obligation to talk. You're not even really supposed to. Just find somewhere to stand, shut up, stare at the wall, and it will soon be over, which is basically how I handle get togethers.

By April, though, assuming the doctors were right, Lisa will be dead, and her friends will be getting together with alarming regularity. Dinners in, dinners out, barbecues, pool parties. I'll have to go, of course, because it will be for Lisa, and it will be what Lisa would have wanted.

Not that anyone will talk about Lisa. In fact, everyone will be careful not to talk about Lisa, because these parties will be about celebrating life, about joy, and friendship, and moving on.

There will be a lot of laughter. Too much laughter. That laughter in the face of tragedy kind of laughter that isn't really laughter at all, and which will annoy me, since I work really hard to make people laugh, and here people are getting big laughs just because someone's dead, which shouldn't count.

Lisa was a vegetarian, and I'll decide to get in on the easy laughter by making some joke about, hey, at least now we don't have to worry about making veggie burgers, am I right? There will be uncomfortable silence, and I'll feel like a dick, so I'll find somewhere to stand, shut up, and stare at the wall. Soon it will be over.

By May, it will be almost three months since Lisa died. In the warmer months, I like to ride my bike to work, but I'll feel guilty passing Lisa's house while engaged in something so healthy and alive, so I'll put my bike in my car, drive past the house, park at the end of the road, and ride from there. It'll be an incredible hassle, and by the middle of May, I'll think about moving. I've always liked Seattle.

I get over my guilt by June, but Lisa is an avid gardener, and around the middle of the month, her friends will decide that maintaining her garden would be a beautiful and life-affirming gesture, one that Lisa would want. They'll start showing up every weekend to weed, prune, and water Lisa's garden. They'll make a sign, brightly colored, that reads "Lisa's Garden," complete with butterflies, and a rainbow, maybe a sunrise. And by July, there will be at least one of them working there every goddamn day of the week.

By August, I'll feel guilty riding pass them, and I'll have to go back to putting my bike in my car, driving past Lisa's house, parking at the end of the road, and riding from there.

When I was a child, my favorite book was called The Five Chinese Brothers. It was about five Chinese brothers who all looked exactly alike. When the first brother is sentenced to death, the other brothers trade places with him and use their special powers to save his life. One has an iron neck. One can stretch his legs. One can withstand fire. One can hold his breath forever. The first brother escapes death, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I had a brother who died when he was three. His name was Jeffy. I hated him. Jeffy died before I was born, and every dysfunction in my considerably dysfunctional family was blamed on his death, even though he died many years before the dysfunctions actually began.

In the story of my family, the three Jewish brothers, there are no special powers. The first Jewish brother dies. The Jewish father starts to drink. The second Jewish brother comes resent the third Jewish brother. The third Jewish brother takes out his feelings of helplessness on the Jewish sister, who is forever being protected by the melodramatic Jewish mother.

The lesson learned was simple. Death was something from which you could never move on.

By September, as the Jewish holidays approach, I'll start thinking about God. The Jewish High Holidays are all about sin and guilt, punishment and admonition, hell, death, retribution, vengeance. It's the most plunderful time of the year.

I'll consider going to synagogue. I'll wonder if I should be teaching my son more about Judaism. Partially out of an irrational sense of tribalism, but mostly out of an irrational sense of fear. God had taken out Lisa. Maybe he was just working his way up the road, and I was next.

By November, I'll begin to worry about Thanksgiving. We've been spending the past few Thanksgivings at Lisa's parents' house, which is close by. Will her parents invite us now that Lisa's passed away? It would kind of suck if they didn't, and I would take it personally, assuming that it meant that they didn't really like us all along, but were just inviting us because of their daughter. I'll obsess about it all month long, and then in mid-November, when they do invite us, I'll obsess about the awkwardness of the meal, now that Lisa won't be there.

They'll probably invite lots of Lisa's friends, thinking that will make it less awkward, but they won't know how sick I am of all her friends already, thereby making a bad situation worse. I'll ask my wife if I can skip the dinner. She'll look at me with the usual disappointment.

A few weeks before my grandfather died, my mother asked me to go visit him. His spirits were down. He was refusing treatment and he was talking about wanting to die.

I expected to find a miserable old man bitching about life in the golden years, but I didn't. He'd been miserable in bemoaning death, but he was at peace in having accepted it. "I have dozens of grandchildren," he said, "and countless great-grandchildren. I've had a wonderful life and leave behind a beautiful family."

"So why do you want to die?" I asked.

"Because my pearl is gone," he said, referring to Baba. "I just don't want to be here without her." He wasn't sad. He wasn't morose. He was done.

A few weeks ago, Lisa refused her doctor's advice to go through yet another round of chemotherapy. A close friend of hers died recently, also of cancer, also after having been given a few months to live. Her friend did chemo to the end. The chemo left her nauseous, tired, weak. It would have bought her another month, tops.

Sometimes the problem isn't death. it's holding on too dearly to life.

Zaida was done. Lisa is done too. She wants to walk her dogs, and have dinner with some friends, and maybe even take a last long walk through her garden. And then if death comes, it comes.

By December, I'll be glad to see the year coming to an end. I'll be looking forward to getting on with things. Nearly 12 months or so will have passed since Lisa died, and that will feel like an accomplishment. Someone will no doubt decide to have a one year memorial party in Lisa's honor, because that's what Lisa would have wanted, and will leave a message on our answering machine with a time and date, sounding all cheery and excited, but almost too cheery and too excited, because Lisa, after all, is dead. And for a moment I'll feel like I have to go, because, hey, it's for Lisa.

But they'll realize, you know what? It's been a year, all right? Why don't you all go to hell. And I'll tell my wife I don't want to go. And by this time, instead of the usual disappointment, she'll look at me and say "Christ, me neither." So we'll lie to everyone and say we're going away on vacation even though we're not, and we'll just make sure to stay out of town for a few days so nobody sees us. Which is exactly what Lisa would have wanted.

Ira Glass

Shalom Auslander. He's the author, most recently, of the book Foreskin's Lament.

Act Two. Lewis Time.

Samantha Cato

Like if I was to show you Lewis' writing, it does not make sense whatsoever.

Ira Glass

Samantha Cato teaches reading and writing to sixth graders at Public School 303 in the Bronx. And she's talking about one of her students, Lewis de la Cruz, who has trouble organizing his ideas when he writes.

Samantha Cato

Even listening to Lewis, he's all over the place.

Ira Glass

So where do you want him to be at the end of the year with his reading and writing, and where do you think he will be at the end of the year? I would like, truthfully, for Lewis to write two to three sentences that go together and make sense. And I really do think he can achieve that. I don't know if that's necessarily on grade level, but it's a big step from where we are.

When it comes to reading, she hopes to have him reading and understanding everything at a fourth grade level. But of course, to accomplish that by June 2010, she's going to have to get him to sit in his seat. Lewis began the year as the most disruptive student in the class. And to deal with that, Ms. Cato and one of the other sixth grade teachers, Ms. Subramaniam, came up with their most ingenious invention-- Lewis time.

Shraddha Subramaniam

Generally, Lewis time begins with Lewis pretending to be a teacher.

Ira Glass

This is Ms. Subramaniam.

Shraddha Subramaniam

It's really cute. Sometimes he starts with, "Good morning, boys and girls."

Lewis De La Cruz

So hi, everybody.

Class

Hi, Lewis.

Ira Glass

This morning I visited the last school day before Christmas break. And at Ms. Subramaniam's request, Lewis has agreed to do a special 2010 prediction edition of Lewis Time with his predictions for the coming year.

Lewis De La Cruz

In 2010, I want to be a famous basketball player in my team.

Ira Glass

Lewis also predicted a trip that will take him around the world and to Antarctica, where he says he would drink hot chocolate and chill with all the birds.

Lewis time came about one morning this fall when everybody was still unpacking their stuff and settling in. Lewis popped up at the front of the room, announced, "It's Lewis time," and put on a little show. His teachers, sensing opportunity, decided to turn Lewis time into a reward. Lewis would get to do Lewis time in the morning if he were good the day before, which meant that he--

Samantha Cato

Stayed in his seat and stuff like that. And we actually discussed with him, what are the things that you do that are not helping the class learn? And he listed everything. He said, I don't finish my work and I do things to get attention. It was pretty amazing how self-aware he was.

Sometimes we let the class vote on whether Lewis should have Lewis time. And they're pretty objective about it. I mean, they love that five minutes of the morning, so they all want it, but they are very willing to acknowledge when he doesn't deserve it.

Lewis De La Cruz

Now we're going to sing for Lewis time. Who's ready? All right. So [? Jansen, ?] give me the beat. Lewis time! Lewis time to 8:25. Everybody loves Lewis time.

Ira Glass

In fact, everybody does love Lewis time. When he asks for suggestions of participation, hands fly up in the air. Twice in the past, he's called for backup dancers, and each time, three girls stood up and joined him and improvised dance numbers.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you, what do you think of Lewis time?

Student 1

Funny and it's cool. Like it's fun.

I like it because he talks like about what happens at home, which is funny, because he always says how he's got a brother, his sisters, and they're always bothering him. And his grandma, he always talk about his grandmother. It's que mas funny. Because his grandma, he's always saying that his grandma always throws farts after she wakes up.

Ira Glass

If you didn't catch that, she said his grandmother throws farts when she wakes up. Sorry, grandma.

Student 2

She was like, mmmm. you know how grandmas are.

Lewis De La Cruz

Lewis time, till 8:25. Lewis time, till 8:25. It's over!

Ira Glass

Has it changed his behavior?

Student 2

Yes, a lot. He used to behave really bad. He used to talk back to the teachers. He was really doing bad. He would just get up on his seat when he wants something.

Ira Glass

Has he changed?

Student 2

Yeah, a lot.

Ira Glass

Of course, Lewis is just one of 35 students in this class, and there are over 100 sixth graders. And Ms. Subramaniam and Ms. Cato have predictions for where each of them is going to be in June, and a plan for each student. A plan that in this class, the students actually write out themselves. In other words, every one of these students has his or her own much quieter version of Lewis Time.

Coming up. The President of the United States who's going to be born in the year 2010. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Potus Operandi.

Jonathan Menjivar

POTUS will have dark, wavy hair. Her eyes will be brown, unless they're green, or maybe hazel. She will have full lips. She will not be tall, which is a nice way of saying that she might be short. Because of this fact, POTUS will not like going to concerts, because like my wife Hillary, she'll only be able to see the backs of other people's heads and that spot on a person's back between their shoulder blades. Someday when she touches that spot on a person she loves, it will feel oddly familiar and comforting, because all her life, while standing in line at the swings, or waiting for a cashier to ring up her milk, she will have looked at that spot on other people.

Because she will be our daughter, POTUS will like chocolate ice cream and enjoy puns. She will need glasses by third grade.

POTUS, I should explain, is what Hillary and I have taken to calling the little girl Hillary will give birth to in 2010. Calling our kid "it" only felt right for about a week or two, so we brainstormed baby code names one night in bed. Hillary thought the name should be something like that opening scene in the West Wing pilot, the one where Rob Lowe walks out of the shower, and a woman in underwear and a men's dress shirt reads from his pager, "POTUS in a bicycle accident." Hillary said our code name should pop like that, but we couldn't think of anything as cool as POTUS, so we just stole it.

I worried that while POTUS was still nothing more than cells splitting into other cells that we might be setting unachievable expectations by naming her the acronym the Secret Service use to refer to the President of the United States. When people find out you're having a baby, they predict all kinds of things about the child you'll have. But I wanted to let POTUS tell us who she was, so I tried to cling mostly to the facts.

20 weeks into Hillary's pregnancy, we went in for an ultrasound. Our ultrasound technician looked like Kate from Jon & Kate Plus 8 in scrubs. She had that crazy hairdo and everything. We asked if she could tell the gender of the baby, and she said, "It's a girl." She said it with the same level of enthusiasm I use to tell Hillary that we got a gas bill in the mail.

Knowing that POTUS was a girl meant that now there was a shape to the mystery. The ultrasound gave us the lines of a coloring book, and we couldn't help but fill them in.

Hillary remembered all the stuff about dominant and recessive genes that I slept through in my high school biology class, and we thought about our friend Michelle, a biologist who spends her days working with fruit fly genes. I don't really understand what it is she does, exactly, except that it has something to do with diabetes. And this summer, when I was having a fruit fly infestation, she didn't have any suggestions for how I could capture or kill them.

I thought maybe Michelle could help us figure out what POTUS might look like. She said she'd do her best, but that this stuff was more complicated in humans than what I was imagining. She also told me that there was a great paper published in Science recently about the genetics of dog coats, and that if we were breeding a dog instead of a little girl, she could be really helpful.

So Michelle came over to our house, and in exchange for lasagna and a beer, she sat with me and drew Punnett squares, those little squares divided into four smaller squares that are supposed to help you figure out what traits win over others. Michelle was willing to commit to a few things, like the fact that POTUS will likely have dark hair.

But really, she said, even if she was able to study me and Hillary in a lab, she couldn't tell us with any certainty what our baby will look like. Because unlike dogs, humans haven't been bred for certain traits, so there's really no way of knowing what green eyes may be hiding in my genes.

Mostly, she said, the whole dominant-recessive thing could help us figure out dopey stuff. Like for instance, now we know that POTUS will have unattached earlobes and be able to impress her friends with her ability to roll her tongue like a taco.

A few months ago, not long after we found out that POTUS was a girl, I was riding my bike home from work. The traffic was heavy, so I was going pretty slow. I looked to my right and noticed a girl on the sidewalk looking at me. Staring, really. She looked like she was in her early 20s and she had her auburn hair tied in a thick braid that swung over her right shoulder. I can't remember if she was wearing glasses, but I know she was wearing a dress and holding a petition clipboard in her right hand.

If skin was made of Play-Doh, hers was what you would get if you forever mixed the Hillary color with the Jonathan one. I couldn't tell you if it was that or the way she looked at me intently that's to blame, but I stared back. And for a split second, I thought she might be POTUS, all grown up.

I wanted to ask her so much, how's school? Do you live around here? What do you like more, seeing fireflies for the first time in the summer or the first fat snowflakes in winter? Really, though, every question was some variation on the one big question I'll try my whole life to make POTUS answer yes to. Are you happy?

It's also, I realize, a question I can't predict the answer to.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of the radio show Fresh Air in Philadelphia.

Act Four. Nostra-mom-us.

Etgar Keret

I live in a family of predictors, but they're mostly predictable predictors. With my ultra-Orthodox sister, it always comes down to the messiah being just around the corner. While with my anarchist brother, it's more along the lines of a blissful economic catastrophe that will liberate this planet from its social injustice. My four year old son Lev predicted next year I'll be moving out of his apartment, and he'll finally get some quality bedtime with his mother without me snoring in the background. And there's my dad. But he being one-track minded, will reply to any question with his usual pitch about how our entire family should buy a piece of land, build a huge mansion, and live in it together, hippie-style, minus the sex and drugs.

The only person in the family who is a good predictor is my mom. So prediction-wise, I'm stuck with her. This woman told me when I was 12 years old that my favorite soccer club would never win any title, and the last 30 years have proven her right.

She also predicted that my brother's first marriage would end in divorce. Admittedly, my future sister-in-law called the wedding "religious performance art," sold tickets to it, and during the ceremony, insisted on breast feeding a porcupine. So maybe it should have been clear to all of us what was coming. But I was at that wedding too, and I was willing to bet a porcupine that they would stay together forever.

And then about four years ago, my mother predicted her next door neighbor's heart attack. Some people may see this incident as more of a curse than an ability. Still, this woman has powers.

So when I'm asked to give a prediction about Israel and the Middle East for 2010, I go running to mommy.

Etgar Keret

Mom, they've asked me for this American radio show to give my prediction about what's going to happen in Israel next year and its [UNINTELLIGIBLE].. So I thought I'd come and ask for your help. Do you have any visions about the future?

Etgar's Mom

Yes, I do. Unfortunately, they are not very nice. We are going back to bad times. It will be a third intifada. The third one won't be so free like they are. We won't be able to walk in the evening. You don't know what will hit you. Because all the crazy people from both sides will show their hand. And then it will be very difficult to live in this country.

Etgar Keret

So now I want to do something that is very intuitive. So I'll just say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to your mind.

Etgar's Mom

OK.

Etgar Keret

OK. God.

Etgar's Mom

What?

Etgar Keret

God.

Etgar's Mom

Well, what about him?

Etgar Keret

How would Israel look different if there would be no God, if everybody's decision would be atheist?

Etgar's Mom

It's impossible to think of.

Etgar Keret

So God these days is part of the equation. We can't take him out.

Etgar's Mom

No way, no way. Middle East without God doesn't exist. There's no such thing.

Etgar Keret

And the year of 2010 for me, for Etgar, what do you think is going to happen to me in 2010.

Etgar's Mom

Oh, you're going to flourish. This is your year.

Etgar Keret

Can you try and build a solid case for that, just so I'll feel better?

Etgar's Mom

You write a book. You direct a film. And you'll be a success. And hopefully, my grandson Lev will have a sister or a brother, and I'll be very happy. Our family will be fine.

Etgar Keret

Thank you, mother.

Here is the bottom line for my mother's 2010 prediction. The region is going to burn. People will die. And somehow, things are going to be horrible for everyone but me. Sorry everyone. I guess my mother's gut is telling her that our country, our wold, is going down the drain. But her heart just can't admit I'm part of that world.

Since I just started saving money for my four year old son's college education in a region where an innocent word like "tomorrow" sounds dangerously hopeful, I'm for sure my mother's son.

Ira Glass

Etgar Keret. His most recent book of short stories translated into English is The Girl On the Fridge.

Act Five. Funny You Don't Look Two-ish.

Adam Davidson

We asked around. We asked former Fed officials and big shots at major banks. And they told us if money is no object and you really want to know the economic future, here's who you call. A firm named Macroeconomic Advisers and its forecasting wunderkind, Joel Prakken.

Joel Prakken

The Department of Treasury is a client of ours. The Office of Management and Budget. The CBO. The Federal Reserve Board is a client of ours. Many of the regional Federal Reserve banks. Many central banks from around the world are clients of ours, in fact. Almost any household name on Wall Street is a client of ours.

Adam Davidson

Right.

What makes Macroeconomic Advisers so special is their computer model that they've made of the entire U.S. economy. Now of course, a lot of forecasters use computer models, but theirs is unusually comprehensive. This has been Joel Prakken's life's work. He's been carefully studying how different parts of the economy affect each other.

You know, if you think about it, it's pretty obvious that if average wages go up, if people make more money, they'll buy more stuff. But how much more stuff? That is where Joel's model comes in. If wages go up by, say, 4%, how many more cars will people buy? And what will that do to the inflation rate? And how will the inflation rate affect home sales? In an economy, everything is connected. Everything is related.

Alex Blumberg

And for the past 28 years, Joel has been figuring out those exact relationships and writing those relationships down in a series of equations which he shows us. And in the world of economic forecasting, showing us those equations is like showing us the secret recipe for Coca-Cola.

Adam Davidson

Although frankly, Prakken's a lot less worried about the secret getting out than Coca-Cola is. He's very happy to show us his equations, because what are we going to do, steal them? We can't even understand them.

Joel Prakken

If we scroll down a little bit further to look at some of the equations--

Alex Blumberg

What?

Joel Prakken

Yeah, OK. So here is an equation-- yeah. So--

Adam Davidson

Whoa! It gets worse every day.

Joel Prakken

It does get worse.

Adam Davidson

So to get at what this equation looks like on the radio, I'm going to read it. It says ECDO over KCDO subscript negative one equals--

Joel Prakken

Which means last period's, minus one. That subscript minus one means last period's KCDO.

Adam Davidson

OK. Equals 0.16 plus 0.006008 times DUM 92 plus 4.447867 times the change in KH plus--

Joel Prakken

The log of KH.

Adam Davidson

Oh, the log of KH.

Joel Prakken

So don't miss that.

Adam Davidson

Plus 17 over, I don't even know what--

Alex Blumberg

Sigma. That's the sum of alpha of the change--

Joel Prakken

Right. One of you remembers your Greek. It's the summation.

Alex Blumberg

Right. And I didn't even get done reading the equation. There's still a whole other line.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. You did half of the equation.

Joel Prakken

I think you probably read enough.

Alex Blumberg

Now, I just want to point out, also. So this one page here-- there are, what? I'm looking at the pdf. It says there's 400--

Joel Prakken

You're on page 49 of 447.

Adam Davidson

Somewhere an economics grad student is listening to that and thinking, "oh, you SUM alpha to an n of 17!" Right?

Alex Blumberg

Joe let us play around with his model. And it was fun. It was like as much fun as I've ever had with a computer screen full of numbers. You can change one thing and watch the effect ripple out throughout the economy. Like we made Joel pretend a war broke out in Saudi Arabia and the average price of oil went from $70 to $100. Boom! Unemployment went up for the next three years.

Adam Davidson

It's like a real world Sim game, sort of. And Joel says that sometimes even his clients want to play. They're constantly asking him to show the worst worst case scenarios. What if everything goes wrong? He's not actually sure this helps them plan anything, but he does it for them.

Alex Blumberg

Now, most of the data Prakken plugs into his model is free. Anyone can download it from government websites. And you'd think that the data would be the simple part of all this. There's no fancy math. It's just facts. Like how many people were unemployed in 2008, for example.

But it turns out, even the data is not simple. And this points to a big problem in forecasting. Joel was showing us how he puts new data into the model, and this was data from a government agency called the BEA, the Bureau of Economic Analysis. For those of you who aren't accountants, the third quarter of 2009 ended in September. But Joel only gets the data from the third quarter around Christmas, three months after the quarter has already ended. And that data, it's not firm. In fact, the BEA calls it an estimate.

Joel Prakken

What's called the final estimate for third quarter GDP.

Alex Blumberg

Wait, they have to estimate what happened three months ago? They can't even get a firm number on what happened in the past?

Joel Prakken

Well, they make three estimates-- well, they make many estimates of what happened the previous quarter. We have the first estimate of the third quarter. A month later, a second estimate. A month after that, a third estimate. In July of every year, we get a so-called annual revision of that, so that's a fourth estimate. July after that, we get the fifth. July after that, we get the sixth.

Adam Davidson

Wait, you mean it's like three years after the year that we--?

Joel Prakken

Right. There are so-called three year revisions to GDP that go back three years.

Alex Blumberg

But I just want to point out, we're calling you to ask what 2010 is going to be like. And what I'm hearing is, if we're lucky, by summertime you can tell us what 2007 was like.

Joel Prakken

Well, if we're lucky, by July of this year, we'll have our first true annual estimate of what 2009 was like. We'll have our second true annual estimate of what 2008 was like. And we'll have our third true annual estimate if what 2007 was like.

Adam Davidson

And you're not even telling us-- when will we actually know?

Joel Prakken

You know, you never know for sure, I think, is the answer here.

Adam Davidson

They just give up guessing.

Joel Prakken

And then on occasion, the BEA introduces a new and improved methodology for processing all the source data, and will revise the entire history of GDP all the way back to 1929 to reflect the improved methodologies.

Alex Blumberg

Economists have a joke which speaks exactly to this point. They say, "How can we predict the future? We can't even predict the past."

Adam Davidson

Yeah. We found all these different economist jokes on this subject. And a lot of them get sort of wonky. Like here's one example. "There are two types of economists-- those who can't forecast interest rates, and those who do not know that they can't forecast interest rates."

Alex Blumberg

Or my personal favorite, attributed to that great economic forecaster Yogi Berra, "The hardest thing to forecast is the future."

Now, all these jokes point to a pretty dismal reality. Economic forecasters, even the best, just are not that good at forecasting the economy.

Adam Davidson

We have this chart that shows how they've done over the last 20 years. On average, the best economic forecasters, including Prakken's Macroeconomic Advisers, have been off by an average of one percentage point per year in predicting how good the economy will do.

Now, that might sound pretty good, one percentage point. But in economic forecast, that can be the difference between night and day, or recession and growth. If a forecast is for the economy to grow by 2% next year, a percentage point error margin means it'll grow somewhere between 1% and 3%.

But 1% growth is really bad. That doesn't even keep up with the population growth. It means there's going to be more unemployment, more layoffs. That's a grim economy.

3% is the exact opposite. Unemployment will go down. People will start feeling better. They'll build homes and start new businesses.

And that 1% margin of error, that's in a good year. Worst case, these forecasts completely miss a huge economic upheaval. For example, our most recent economic upheaval. In January of 2008, right before the economy collapsed, the leading forecasters were predicting a pretty decent year. In fact, we now know the worst recession in decades had already begun. And not only did they not forecast it, they didn't even notice that it had already started.

By the way, economic forecasters also missed the 1982 recession, the 1984 recovery, the late '90s stock bubble, the 2001 recession. So you get the idea.

Simon Johnson

You know, economic forecasting is inherently an impossible task.

Alex Blumberg

This is MIT economist Simon Johnson. Listeners might recognize his voice. He's been the show before. We were talking to him because of his former job as an economic forecaster. He was actually the chief economist at the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, where he was responsible for delivering the IMF's annual economic forecast. Which he says was pretty stressful, because he knew there were all these things he didn't know.

Simon Johnson

Between now and the end of next year, the world will bd hit by three major shocks, probably.

Alex Blumberg

You mean that's just average, over the last century or whatever?

Simon Johnson

Yes, exactly. Stuff happens, OK? And you know, the thing you're studying is subject to so much chaos in a mathematical sense. So much randomness. Relatively small random things that can have big outcomes. Because there's a lot of nonlinearity, if you want to use a technical expression, in the way this system operates. And so making any forecast has inherently got this problem.

Adam Davidson

Talking to to Simon, you realize chaotic randomness is just one of many problems confronting an economist trying to make a forecast. For example, in Simon's case, there are politics involved, as well. Simon was constantly getting pressure from other countries to revise his IMF forecast. He even got in a famous tussle-- famous in the world of international finance, at least-- with the French and German governments when they said his forecast was too downbeat.

Alex Blumberg

But Simon says global politics is not the only non-mathematical factor that throws off forecasts. There's also your own ego.

Simon Johnson

You know, the hardest thing about forecasting, actually, is that you get too committed to the forecast. You get too committed to what you said last time. Because it's just too embarrassing to say, oops. You know, I was wrong. A lot of stuff happened. We misread it. We have to make a big revision. People hate to make big revisions to their forecasts, and I'm no exception.

This happened to me, actually, this year. This year we had, I think, a lot of good analysis. We make some good calls early in the year. And then one of the people are I work with very closely started to say, you know, I think there's going to be a recovery. And I said, how can there be a recovery? We've pointed out all these massive problems. We've very wedded to this view that we're going down and we're staying down. And you know, he pointed out to me that economies usually bounce back, even economies with deep-seated problems, for example, the bank system can bounce back in this sort of situation.

And I realized that I had to get over-- you know, the fact that I diagnose problems had convinced that the initially negative forecast had been a good call, and then I was still staying negative when I should've revised positive.

But it's hard to change your mind like that. You've told people, you've stuck you neck out, you've been to events, you've said, I think it's going to be, you know, it's going to be flat from here. And you realize that that's-- you have to go out and say, I've changed my mind. I've updated. That's not an easy thing to do when you went around telling people. And yet you were quite convincing when you told people all these negative things.

Adam Davidson

Now I've got to say, Simon, you did make some very strong predictions in January, February of this year that I found incredibly persuasive. Which were that basically, if I recall correctly, if the U.S. government does not take over several of our leading banks, we are in for a severe, long-term financial crisis akin to the Lost Decade in Japan, where basically there was no economic growth for a long, long, long time. It seems right now you were wrong on that, right?

Simon Johnson

Yes, I was wrong. And that's a hard thing to say. And I think that Adam just called me on it in a most embarrassing fashion. I'm blushing deeply here. Because, you know, it's hard for me to say-- how am I going to get out of that one?

Adam Davidson

One guy who is constantly confronted with the limits of economic forecasts is Randy Moore. He puts out the very influential Blue Chip Economic Indicator newsletter, which compiles the 50 leading economic forecasts. Randy averages them out and produces what's called the Blue Chip Consensus Forecast, the distilled thinking of the 50 best economic minds in American businesses.

Alex Blumberg

Now, the Blue Chip Forecast Newsletter does not come cheap. It'll cost you $875 for a year subscription.

Adam Davidson

Though that's nothing compared to Joel Prakken's Macroeconomic Advisers. That's like 20 to 100 grand a year, right?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, but you get a much bigger forecast. And both these guys have lots of customers. Governments are using them to plan budgets and make decisions about taxing and spending. Banks use it to decide who to lend money to and where to invest their extra money. Companies use the information to figure out how many people to hire or fire, or how much steel to buy, or whatever. It has a huge impact.

But for a guy who makes his living selling economic forecasts, Randy is pretty honest about how accurate he thinks they are.

Randy Moore

Any economic forecast that you see that includes a decimal point implies a level of accuracy that reality suggests isn't present.

Alex Blumberg

So you would rather if most forecasts just ended with -ish? Like, it'll be two-ish, it'll be three-ish.

Randy Moore

Just two. Two-ish, three-ish, exactly.

Adam Davidson

I love that idea. That we should make a-- not make a law, but we should encourage economists to just end with -ish. The economy will be three-ish. It'll be good-ish.

Randy Moore

Unfortunately, that's not what the consumers of economic forecasts want. People that want those forecasts want decimal point forecasts.

Adam Davidson

But that's so interesting to me, is that the people who are using these forecasts, they want a level of precision that they themselves have to know, by experience, is just not possible.

Randy Moore

I agree with that.

Adam Davidson

What's going on there?

Randy Moore

I don't have a ready explanation for that. It's difficult to plug in a two-ish number. Excel doesn't recognize two-ish or three-ish.

You know, people have been going to oracles since the days of Delphi. And I don't think anybody that shows up has the expectation that it's going to be completely right. But there's comfort in being told that. And I think that's probably what those decimal points are.

Adam Davidson

But of course, what are people supposed to do? One economic forecaster we talked to told a story about being on the board of a small not-for-profit. They were trying to figure out how to balance their budget for the coming year, what to charge for services. At one point in the discussions, a board member looked to this economist and said, "Where do you think interest rates will be next year?"

Alex Blumberg

Sort of the economist's version of asking a doctor, "This mole, you think I should get it looked at?"

Adam Davidson

So there this economist was, with all these people looking at him like, you're the expert! You know what the future is. Tell us. And the economist could not just say, I have no idea. The future is void. The organization needed to stay open, the budget needed to be balanced, fees needed to be set. He needed to make a forecast.

Simon Johnson

I would call it a necessary evil.

Adam Davidson

Again, Simon Johnson.

Simon Johnson

You know, there's so much imprecision. There's so much lagging in terms of our updating that, in some sense, we'd be better off without forecasts. We'd be better off making up our minds afresh every day. But the problem is, you can't do that.

All of these, the businesses, the institutions, all involve thinking about the future and planning for the future. And you can't do that without taking a view of the future.

Alex Blumberg

In other words, there's one thing we can say for sure about the future. It will come. And just because we don't know what it will bring doesn't mean we shouldn't make our best guess.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson are the creators of Planet Money, which is a co-production of our program and NPR News. They explain the economy in normal language that anybody can understand on their thrice-weekly podcast and blog at npr.org/money.

Our program is produced today by Jane Feltes with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Aaron Scott. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Our music consultant is Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who can be seen lurking around the public radio conventions, luring radio hosts to come work at WBEZ with these words.

Ashli Lewis

You're the one. When I tell you you're going to be successful, I don't mean kind of successful. I mean successful in a way that you rarely see. I mean really successful. And you just need to get ready.

Ira Glass

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