Transcript

40:

Lessons
Transcript

Originally aired 11.01.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/40

Act One. Ski Lesson.

Different Voices

From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. Public Radio. Public Radio International.

Ira Glass

Here's the dream, expressed as concisely, I think, as anybody ever has expressed it. I hold in my hand a handwritten sign that was photocopied and pasted up around the San Francisco area. In big letters at the top it says, "Play guitar for $5." There are two underlines underneath that. Then, in smaller letters underneath, it says, "I don't give guitar lessons. I give one lesson. In that lesson, I will teach you three chords for 5 bucks. Ever see those mindless junkies up on stage banging out that pre-adolescent bull, waving their hair around, getting free drinks and other favors? Know why they're better than you? Because they know three chords, and you don't. So for a quarter of what you'd spend getting drunk and watching their crappy band, I'll teach you all you need to know. If you're sick of talking and want to start rocking, give me a call and give me a five, and I'll show you how." And then, underneath, the guy's name, Michael Dean, punk rock and roll fantasy camp, then his phone number, and the important words which follow, "Call at noon only." Underlined "only."

Why I bring it up here-- by the way, from WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. I bring it up here because this is the dream, this right here. This sums it up, the dream of what we want when we start taking classes. Our dream is it's going to be easy, it's going to be quick, it's going to be cheap, and that we're going to be transformed by someone who is completely confident of that fact. He's just going to give it to us, and then it's just going to happen. And then we're going to be done. This is the dream that we carry with us into any kind of lessons of any sort, guitar, dancing, tennis, meditation, pottery, screenplay writing.

Well, we are back here on our program for another week documenting everyday life in these United States. Each week, as you know, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers and documentary producers to take a whack at that theme. Today's theme is Lessons. Act One, Ski Lessons. And in that act, we are pleased to bring you Spalding Gray, a man who is sometimes called the premier teller of monologues in America.

Act Two, Swimming Lesson. That'll be a story from our own Scott Carrier.

Act Three, How To Fire a Potato in a Graceful Arc 450 Feet in the Air, a lesson on that.

Act Four, we'll just get to Act Four when we do. Stick around and learn, OK?

Act Two. Swimming Lesson.

Ira Glass

Yeah, you can tell we're having the big star on today because we're using the big movie music. Klieg light sweeping across the studio ceiling. I wish you could see it in here. I've got to turn this music off. Hold on for a second. I'm just going to take that out. Let me switch to another song here. Yeah, that'll do. As I was saying, it's a great pleasure to welcome Spalding Gray to our program. Gray's probably best known for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was made into a feature film a few years back. He's travelled the country for years with various monologues, Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy.

If you haven't seen him, what he does is he basically just sits on stage with a table and a glass of water and some notes in the most nondescript clothes possible, clothes that make no statement at all. And he tells these stories. It's interesting, actually, for those of us who have followed Spalding Gray's work, this monologue-- it's called It's a Slippery Slope-- because unlike some of them, it's a story in which he's really transformed. At the end of the story, he is really a different person than he is at the beginning in two ways.

That transformation takes two parts. One, he leaves his long-term relationship-- this woman who he's just been with for years and years and years-- for another woman and has a baby with this other woman. And the other thing is, he learns to ski. We're going to play you a long excerpt of the skiing stories he tells. Spalding Gray tells the audience that he hates lessons and school of all types, does miserably in any kind of formal learning setting. But somehow, he gets it in his head that what he wants to do is he wants to ski. Skiers just seem glorious and athletic. And he and his longtime companion, Renee, decide to take a lesson.

Spalding Gray

So there we are, standing there on a beautiful, clear, cloudless spring day. And our ski professor, the instructor, comes out and announces that he used to be a heart surgeon. Now he's retired and doing what he's always really wanted to do, ski instructing. "And aren't you lucky to be here on one of the most beautiful slopes in America," so he says, "standing on 150 inches of packed powder under a cloudless, blue sky, looking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, the rim." And so we were, and so it was spectacular.

And we began to do the first moves, the snow plow. And we start down. It's a bit awkward, but I am staying balanced. The skis aren't splitting me too much, and Renee and everyone else in the class is doing fine. And we go into the turns for the traverse. And people are going right, left, and I find that for some reason-- I never have found out why-- I only could turn left. But I was doing that fine. I was doing these great traverses left, and snow plow down, and take the lift up, and left, and down and left. Hi, left, left.

I couldn't come around right. I thought I had to think my way around into it. And Renee now has finished the lesson, is up on the porch saying, "Let's get going. We're going to miss our plane." I said, "Renee, I don't think I can go. I have to turn right on skis. I'm going to do it like you. I've got to do it." "Spald, come, there'll be another time." "What if there isn't?"

In the car, I am completely dejected, depressed. She's driving. I'm in a big slough. I'm in a slump, going "Oh no, failed again." We get to the Phoenix airport, and we go in. And we're just checking on the bags, and something seizes me. I just freeze up and go, "I can't. I'm not going. I can't. Wait, wait. No, no. I've got to turn right on skis. It's as simple as that. Excuse me, ma'am. Wait, no, you put the bags. Wait, ma'am. Wait, there's a motel up there, isn't there? Up at that ski slope?" "Mr. Gray, I am here to check you on for the Newark flight. I'm not a travel agent. Are you or are you not flying with us?"

"I can't-- wait a minute, Renee. You go ahead. I'm going to go up there, and maybe I can go back to Davis. I don't-- oh wait, wait, wait, oh Jesus Christ. I can't--" She's going over to talk to the head stewardess saying, "I think there's someone here that should not be flying with us today." Renee leads me over meanwhile, and she saying, "What is going on?" And I said, "Renee, listen, I'm tired of being a vicarian. I want to live a life, not tell it. I don't want to do a monologue about not being able to turn right on skis. I want to just do it. I got oh--" She goes, "Time for intervention. I'm calling your brother."

She calls my brother, Rocky, in Saint Louis and says, "I'm here in the Phoenix airport. Spald won't get on the plane because he can't turn right on skis. I'll put him on. All right." "Hi, Rock, I'm doing well turning left. I know I could be a skier. Yeah, I can't turn right." "Well, don't you have a hard life."

Ira Glass

Well, as this story goes, Spalding Gray does in fact get on the plane and does return to New York City. But he remains obsessed with this idea that he is going to learn to ski, and he is going to finally turn right. And so obsessed with it, in fact, he says at one point he actually starts to watch skiing videos.

Spalding Gray

They're unbelievable. They're like porn films. I mean similar exhibitionistic gymnastics, similar music, similar vicarious, "god, I feel lonely, I wished I was in the center of that" feeling.

Ira Glass

Eventually, Spalding Gray does finally get to ski with an acquaintance named Barney on this picture perfect day out on a mountain in California.

Spalding Gray

DayGlo tape is pulled. Barney and I start up with all of the locals. And we begin to ski, and I find I'm only going left. I'm going left into the bushes, coming out the other side with branches in my mouth like a Botticelli. And I say, I won't, I won't, I won't, I won't bother you. I know I have to do this on my own. You go ski. I'm going over to Meadow. I go over to Meadow, the green slope. And I am inspired that day when I see what I see. It's the adaptive ski school. And they are taking quadriplegics out of wheelchairs and putting them in gondolas with those little ski runners. And they have poles with skis on them, and I think, Spalding, if you can't turn right on this slope today, give it up.

Now, I have no instructor. I'm trying to do this on my own. And I begin, and I'm left in crashing. And yard sale, all stuff is all over, picking up my stuff. But you know what I'm impressed by is how wildly I can crash and still get up without anything broken. And it's left and crash, and left and crash. And then it happens. It's ineffable. I can't tell you how it happens. All the time, I think I had to think myself around. It was just a shift of weight, and I never experienced this in my life except in 1946 on Thanksgiving Day when I first learned how to pump on a swing. I suddenly turned right, or something turned me right. And then left, right, left, boom, down. But I was up again, left, right, left. People would ski by me real fast. I'd crash. People would ski by me and fall. I'd crash. I was in such empathy. Or I'd be skiing and thinking, you're doing it. You're skiing. Crash. It was so beautiful. It was like zen, but not as subtle.

If you weren't present, you crashed, and the mountain hit you. And I realized at that point that all my life I'd been doing a kind of subtle suicide to myself. I'd always be somewhere else in my head. I was always thinking, oh, I could be there. Or I could be there. I could be there. Or I wish I was there. But now when I'm skiing, I don't have that as long as I'm skiing.

And I'm so excited I get down to lunch to join Barney, and we go over to the blue slope. And I'm going to ski with him, and now it's a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] day. It is a perfect day that reminds me of the old days, the Thornton Burgess books my father used to read to me, The West Wind Stories when you see the cloud with a face and a wind puffing out of its lips. That's how the clouds looked. Only there wasn't wind. It was these long chains of snow flurries. And then the clouds would pass, and the bright California sun would light the packed snow. And there were furrows where other people had skied, and we were hopping through the furrows in other people's rhythm. And we were riding up. We were dancing in the day. I was with a man, and we weren't talking. We were skiing together, and I couldn't stop. At the end of the day, they had to restrain me. I tried to bribe the lift operator for another run. Barney said, "Easy, easy, easy. You've been skiing for seven hours." I'd never done anything for seven hours in my life. I never thought of death once.

We went back to the condo. Barney was driving. I was flat-lining. Whoa, not an anxious thought in my head. Oh, boy, unwind in front of the gas log. Have a couple of beers and watch the weather channel. Whatever. Deep, deep dreamers, oblivion, sleep.

The following day, I woke up and I thought, oh, my god. Now there's skiing, and there's life. And I don't want to live anymore. I don't want to come down from this mountain. I want to figure out how to stay up here, how to make a living up here, how to just ski. I had a mission. I never felt a mission in my life, a quest. I wanted to ski across America to New England. I saw myself like John Cheever's story, "The Swimmer." Burt Lancaster did the film. Swimming his way back to that deserted house through backyard swimming pools, only I was going to do it on ski slopes and use my monologue as a vehicle and begin booking them by ski areas.

And I did. I booked Gray's Anatomy first of all where I had to conquer the big master, Ajax in Aspen. And I booked the Wheeler Opera House, and they gave me a condo, a free ski lesson, and passes to ski and some money. It was a very good deal. It was. And basically in Aspen, there are two mountains. You've got Ajax, the big, giant father figure. And then you've got Buttermilk, which is like the reclining lady. You can ski over her breasts and through her thighs, no problem. At the end of the day, go over and get beat up by the father, you see. The ticket is interchangeable.

So I am having my ski lesson on Buttermilk, of course, on the lady. And I am hanging out, waiting for the ski instructor to come out. I have nothing to do, so I'm reading whatever I can get my hands on. I'm reading the back of my ski ticket. I will never do that again. "Skiing is inherently a dangerous sport, which can result in personal injury, including catastrophic injury, death or property damage." God forbid property damage. "If you are not willing to assume the risks set forth in this warning, please do not ski in this area." Sign it. Sign the ticket. Sign for the skis, little stubby 160s so I can turn easily. Sign, sign, sign. Sign my life away and wait for my ski instructor to come out.

And he skis out, says, "Hi, guy. OK, let's begin. Sterling, is it all right if I call you Sterling? Let's begin with a little joke, Sterling. Do you know the difference between a snowboard and a vacuum cleaner?" "No, I don't." "Depends on where you attach the dirt bag. OK, slight bend in the knees. Corresponding bend in the hip joint, great. OK, crouch and lift at the same time, good. Parallel skis, flat on the snow. Skis slightly edged, all right? Now, using turns on each traverse, we can go down the mountain at any speed we so desire. Now weight, 90% of the weight on the downhill ski, good. Weight forward, don't sit back. Nothing natural about this posture, Sterling, nothing natural about it. Hey, don't cave in. All right, flex your elbows. Weight over the balls of your feet. Please don't stick your butt out.

Now, your basic traverse stance is often referred to as that of a banana. Banana arching, skin on the banana. Still think of your ski-suit as a banana skin if that's going to help. Now, you're really falling down the mountain, Sterling." Another snowboarder shoots between us. "That little [BLEEP]. I'm just waiting for one of them to hit me, and I'm going to cash in on his HMO and retire. OK, parallel skis. Upper ski is slightly leading in front of the downhill ski. Shift your weight and let the upper ski lead out. All right, facing down the fall line. Basically, you're falling down the mountain, OK? Point your belly button down the hill. Banana arching, OK? You stand and watch while I traverse down the mountain, and then you follow."

I stood there like a frozen banana and ended up going down to the Wheeler Opera House to perform Gray's Anatomy. My ironic, hypochondriacal voice made all the exhausted skiers laugh. The following day, I was determined to set skis on Ajax, even though my guide books said under no circumstances should a beginner go on this mountain. And on the way to Ajax, I was recollecting my Greek history. Ajax, hero of the Trojan Wars, who mistook a flock of sheep for warriors, hallucinated, killed them, and then killed himself out of humiliation. That's Ajax.

So I arrive, and I get the map. And I'm choosing what trail I should go on based on the name. And I choose Dipsy-Doodle and Pussyfoot. So I'm standing on Dipsy-Doodle, talking to myself. Skis parallel and slightly apart. Slightly. Slightly means slightly. Relax arms, flex elbows, flex elbows. Why did I let him call me Sterling? Crouch and lift at the same time. Weight over the balls of your feet. Now look, I never knew my feet had balls. I've heard the expression, but I have never contacted them. Basically, I felt like a bad geometry class. I felt all fragmented. I couldn't really get it all together and boogie. And these these other skiers are going by me full speed, doing that little Austrian wiggle, that tight ass little bunny hop, the skis close together. [BUMPING SOUNDS] They go by. With their nose up in the air, they go, "On your left." I mean you're not allowed to fall on Ajax. If you fall, they go by and go, "On your left." At Buttermilk, they say, "Are you all right, guy? Can I help you up?"

But I'm skiing. I'm skiing, and I'm going down. I haven't got any inner cheerleader voice, no voice in me saying, you're doing great. But you know what I don't have anymore? I don't have the self-deprecating, "you're [BLEEP] you're no good, you'll never master this" voice because the mountain's knocking the [BLEEP] out of me. It's hitting me. It took that voice away. It's such a whoa that beats you up. It's a plummeting. It's like the father I never wrestled with. I'm down, boom. And I'm up again. And I'm surviving it. And I'm skiing, and I experience a zen miracle. I'm hungry without looking at my watch.

And I ski on down. I don't ski the whole mountain. It's just halfway down to the little gourmet restaurant, Bonnie's. Hey, I feel like a skier now. I can eat with them on the deck. Take my skis off, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in the snow, clomp on down like a man on the moon, big ski boots crouching on the deck. Order a well-done hamburger to avoid E. coli. And sit out in the sun. Oh, my god. I've got to pinch myself. The fat lady hasn't sung yet. Is this really happening to me? Is this Spuddy Gray, great failure of Barrington, Rhode Island, skiing in Aspen alone, able to be alone? It occurred to me that this was a moment I was having for myself. I was doing this. I didn't even know what that meant, never had the experience in my life. And I'm saying, this is really cool. I like this.

And oh, I see three people coming toward me. Uh-oh, it's all over. These people have probably seen my show. I can tell by the way the woman's smiling. And they come over, though I like them. They're locals. The first woman's name is Maggie. She's a mail-woman, a letter carrier. She's on a long lunch break. And her boyfriend, Jake, who is a a contractor, and then Martha, a friend of theirs who is a ski instructor for the blind actually over at Buttermilk. And they're all taking the day off to ski. And they want to ski with me. And I say, "Oh, no, no, I'm not really a skier. I'm just a faller, really. I'm up here falling down. Don't, don't, don't. I'm having a good time alone. It's fine." No, no, they're not interested. They've skied the mountain hundreds of times. And Jake's trying to give me this line that pack skiing is how I will really learn, skiing in a group. He's got this theory, the Balinese dance masters, he's telling me. That's how they teach their students kinetically so they're dancing right. "All right, I'll give it a try."

So we go over, and damn it all if those skis don't feel too big. They always do when I put them on at first. I feel like a two-year-old trying to walk again. They're crossing. I'm flopping around. I fall down. They're waiting. They're laughing. They're doing fine. But damn it, Jake is right. The actor-mimic in me is able, for some reason, to connect with him and begin to ski like him, to emulate him. So my skis are more parallel. I'm getting up more speed. In fact, I'm almost-- not crashing into him, but becoming one with him until I try to get back to myself and I crash because I don't know how to make the transition.

But something's happening that is right. And Maggie is the provocateur. She keeps passing over a snuffed out marijuana joint that she wants to re-light every time we're on the lift. "Oh no, no, thanks. Really, that stuff just makes me think. I don't-- Well, actually think is the word. I'd be a scholar if that was the case. It just makes me grind my gears, junk-head, around and around, garbage, nothing productive. Really, I mean if I was dancing all night at a club or something, I'd take it. But--" "Oh," Maggie says, "really, Spalding, skiing is like dancing in the day. It's like dancing in the light. Don't say no. Just say maybe."

So next time around, Maggie and I are alone on a double lift. And she just lights it and passes it over. And I don't think about it. I just go [INHALING SOUNDS]. Pass it back. And I begin to think. I begin to think so hard that I don't get off the lift, and it goes around. They stop it. I'm hanging up there. He goes, "Hey, rock and roll. Hey, man, having a good day?" They're helping me down, and the skis are falling off. They are too big, I'm thinking. And the marijuana is making them seem too big. But I have to say, in defense of the hemp, it really does loosen up my hips. Not that you're supposed to have loose hips when you're skiing, but boogie on down. I'm skiing with Jake now, and I like that, this new male thing, because usually I always felt I had to talk to a guy. We're just skiing together, and I'm up at the top of the mountain waiting for Martha and Maggie to come up.

And Jake says, "I want to show you something." Oh, god no. He's going to try to teach me something. Suddenly, I feel like a frozen banana. "No," he says, "don't freeze up. You're doing fine in your turns. But you know what? After you turn, you're sliding down the mountain. You're sliding down the mountain because you're not edging. Just watch me for a minute. And I look over. Oh, wow, I'm able to see it. I'm able to take it in. He rolls his skis in just slightly into the mountain and edges . And oh, yes, I'm behind him, and what a difference an edge makes.

We are skiing now down Ruthie's Run, a terrain that was so steep, I was simply crashing down it before. And now, I am realizing that you have to be out of control to be in control. For a second, you have to be falling down that fall line and then catch yourself. And you have to have the leap of faith, and I never had faith in my life until that day. You've got to believe you're going to turn right in order to turn right, and it's a leap of faith and around. Wow, I doubted everything until this moment. And a leap of faith, and I'm around. And I'm falling into the light. And I can feel the gravity pulling me, the earth, the mother. And leap of faith, and I'm around. And leap of faith, I'm around. And leap of faith, I'm around. And Maggie shoots behind me with stereo earphones on, yelling "Think of it as a white wall of death."

And I'm able to keep my balance in the face of this, and I know where she gets her kicks. And I know she's hoping I'll do a monologue about this, and she will be in it. We have a wonderful afternoon. It's timeless. It's so energized. It's so-- oh, it's so-- and they bid farewell. They say, "It's almost 4 o'clock. We've got to run the mountain. You download." I said, "No, I want to ski down with you guys." "Spalding, you know what? It's really not safe. There's only one way down the mountain. At the end of the trail, it's Spa Gulch. And the locals refer to that often as the valley of the shadow of death. It's icy. It's dark. The shadow comes in. Maggie blew her ACL tendons out last year. You could hear them pop up the gulch like hot spaghetti. You don't want to do it." "I do." "It's your choice."

So I opt-- my plan is that I'm going to follow Martha, the blind ski instructor. I hadn't skied with her yet. Ski instructor for the blind. She was like a sleek weasel, really, really, smooth, fast, confident. And I'm right behind her. And what's exciting now is that we're running the whole mountain, so the rhythm starts to build. And before, we were just skiing around at the top. And we're starting down, and there's all this new terrain. And then, as we get closer to Spa Gulch, I can see what they mean. The conversion, it's like a LA freeway. All the trails are going into that one place. And behind me, I can hear snowboarders shredding.

And all of a sudden, Martha goes straight up the edge of the gulch and hops around and comes down. And I'm behind her. I don't know who's doing this. Are the skis skiing me? And I go up, and all of a sudden, I see a cobalt blue sky, a new moon, and I'm around. I see amber, bright sun on snow and dark shadow. And down and up and around, and down and up and around. And up and down and up. Pow, born out of the thighs of Ajax. And Jake comes over and gives me a big high five, my first.

And I say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for skiing with me today." And I bid them farewell and go in to turn my equipment into the rental place. And the guy says, "Hey, man, you should either be dead or in the hospital." I said, "What are you talking about? You hear I skied the gulch?" "No, you stole some lawyer's 195s at lunch. He had a $125 lesson he had to take. He had to take on your stubby little 160s. He's looking for you, man. I mean, you skied on the wrong bindings all afternoon. It's a wonder you didn't break your leg. You're [BLEEP] blessed, man."

And with his blessings, I felt initiated. I skied Ajax, skied Spa Gulch and graduated in one day from 160s to 195.

Ira Glass

Spalding Gray, an excerpt from his monologue, It's a Slippery Slope. We recorded Spalding Gray at the world premiere of his monologue at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Coming up, swimming lessons, shooting potatoes 450 feet in the air, instructions on how to have an affair, and more, in a minute, when our program continues.

Act Three. Shooting Lessons.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme with monologues, short fiction, mini-documentaries, found tape, whatever they can think of. Our theme today is Lessons. We are at Act Two of our program, Swimming Lesson. You know, some lessons-- I think the best classes-- always teach more than concrete skills. They help overcome fears. They change people in more profound ways. This next story comes from Scott Carrier, who lives in Salt Lake City.

Scott Carrier

My wife, Hillary, is a beautiful swimmer, relaxed, graceful. She just sort of slimmers around on top of the water. I didn't know this about her when I met her. I knew she grew up on a lake in New Hampshire, but I'd never seen her swim until this summer when we spent a few weeks at the lake visiting her parents. She liked to swim at night, go far out in the darkness and then turn around and swim back to the light on her parents' house.

So this summer, we were there at the lake, and my wife and her mother decided it was time for our three and a half-year-old daughter to take swimming lessons. I said, "No, she's too young." And my wife said, "Mr. Switzer likes to start them at three and a half." I said, "Who's Mr. Switzer?" And my mother-in-law said, "He gives lessons in the pool next to his house. It's a nice pool. He taught Hillary to swim. He taught all my kids to swim. He went to Harvard and then coached at a private school with a good reputation." I said, "Oh, well, then of course." And my wife said, "Monday morning. We've already signed her up. You can come with us and see for yourself. He's a good teacher."

So Monday morning, we drove to Al and Betsy Switzer's Aquatic School in Center Sandwich. The pool was dark blue, the color of glacial ice, 60 feet long and nearly ringed by mothers sitting in white, plastic lawn chairs. There were about 18 kids in the pool, a couple of pretty college girls teaching the intermediate and advanced swimmers, and Mr. Switzer, deep tan, square jaw, big muscles, in the pool at the shallow end with the beginners, three boys and three girls hanging on to the edge, crying and shivering. Or actually, it was just the three boys who were crying. One of them tried to climb out of the pool, and Mr. Switzer pulled him back in saying, "You stay there. You stay right there and don't move from that spot." That, of course, made the other two boys freak out even more, and one of them was crying for his mom to come get him. And Mr. Switzer pointed to the mom and then pointed to the gate. And she popped right up and walked out.

Mr. Switzer

Head down.

Scott Carrier

In the lesson, Mr. Switzer took the kids one by one and stood over them, moving their arms and legs through the water. He did this even to the kids who were nearly hysterical. Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick. Then he had them go under the water, keeping their eyes open to look and grab his fingers. Then he had them get out and walk over to the edge where the water was deeper. They were all standing there shaking, holding their little hands over their little hearts. He was going to make them jump.

Mr. Switzer

Now listen, everybody, what you're going to do is you're going to jump to me, and I'm going to catch you. All right? I'm going to catch everybody. Stand up, Alice.

Scott Carrier

First, he told my daughter to jump, and she did and just about landed on his head. She was kind of screwing around and having too much fun. Next, the other two girls, and they jumped pretty easily too. But then, the boys, and the boys were afraid. They were just little kids who hadn't learned to hide their fear, what looked like true fear, not some sudden fright caused by a bad dream or a monster movie, but scared, silly panic, their bodies quivering like jello, their faces filled with grief.

Mr. Switzer

Ready. I'll catch you. Come on. Go. Jump, jump. Go. Jump. Come on.

Scott Carrier

But they did it, or at least two of them summoned their courage, leaned into their fear, and jumped. For them, it was as wild and as real as it gets. But the other little one just couldn't do it, so they pushed him.

Mr. Switzer

What did I tell you? What did I tell you? What did I tell you? What did I say? I'd catch you. Yeah, and I said I'd catch you. Did I catch you?

Swimming Boy

Yeah.

Mr. Switzer

Yeah.

Scott Carrier

After the lesson, I introduced myself to Mr. Switzer and asked him about his methods.

Mr. Switzer

As soon as we start working the arms with a three and a half-year-old, we're basically working with the arms the way we want them to work later on. And you saw today, a couple of the real criers, they don't know what they're in for. But then they find I'm a good guy. They find that if I say I'm going to catch them or I'm going to do something, I'm not going to fool them. See, the classes you're watching this afternoon, some of those Beginner One classes, by the end of this week, they'll all go off in the deep end. And most of them will go off from the diving board, which is one meter up. And they'll swim to the ladder.

Now most of them will not have anywhere near perfect arm stroke. Many of them will just kick to the ladder, but what that does is gives them-- with the head in the water again-- it gives them that confidence that if they should fall off a dock, they can look around underwater and kick or somehow get to the point of safety.

Scott Carrier

The second day, there was less crying. And by the second week, things had calmed down to the point where I started paying attention to the intermediate and advanced swimmers, kids mainly 8 to 12 years old swimming laps, all practicing the same slow stroke, reaching far out ahead and pulling slowly back, relaxed, breathing rhythmically, relaxed. They were learning to swim gracefully, gliding across the pool like schoolgirls walking with books on their heads. They were all learning to swim exactly like my wife.

Hillary Carrier

He was strict. He was a strict teacher, but he's not mean. I mean, he used to say things like, "If you don't relax your hand, I'm going to break it with a hammer." But you knew that he wasn't being mean. That's just what he would say. He has a sense of humor, and as a kid, you know that. I think probably the most important thing about his teaching is that he does expect you to do it. And kids know what you expect of them. If you don't really expect them to listen to you, they know that.

Mr. Switzer

Steven, I want you to fly. I want you to fly. Are you ready? Fly. Come on. Come on.

Scott Carrier

The final part of the final lesson, Mr. Switzer took his beginning class to the diving board for them to jump and swim to the ladder.

Mr. Switzer

This is the mostest of the funnest.

Colin

[CRYING] I don't want to.

Mr. Switzer

You want to do this, don't you? This is the fun. You want to do this, don't you?

Colin

I don't want to.

Mr. Switzer

Colin, you want to do this, don't you?

Colin

I don't want to.

Mr. Switzer

Ready, one, two, three, jump.

Scott Carrier

And they all jumped, and they all swam. And then it was over.

Mr. Switzer

All right? You did a nice job.

Scott Carrier

Now our daughter Alice has a card saying she's passed the Beginner One level at the Switzer Aquatic School. Next thing I know, she'll be swimming far out into the lake at night. This is Scott Carrier.

Act Four. Found Tape.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Shooting Lesson. Well, my sister Randi has two kids, both boys. And she's the kind of mom who declared early on, no guns in the house. She thought it taught the wrong values. She's still your basic liberal soccer mom. As long as that phrase has come up in our national debate, that's my sister, soccer mom. But by the time each nephew, Ben and Sam, turned two years old, it became clear that the drive to play with guns, for whatever reason, was more powerful than one mom could stop. They would make guns out of anything. They'd make guns out of sticks. They'd make guns out of crayons. Once, we were having a spaghetti dinner, and I saw Benny make a gun out of a noodle. He tried to shoot someone with a noodle. Boys and guns, boys and guns.

Well, Kitty Felde is a reporter who's best known to public radio audiences for her coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, but not long ago, she headed out into the hills above Berkeley with her cousin's husband, a guy whose name is Jim Gray. And as you'd expect from a Berkeley area family, Jim Gray is the kind of liberal who would not go out with a big rifle on weekends shooting at game. He's not killing little rabbits and squirrels and stuff to feed the family or anything. He doesn't march on Washington to preserve our rights to assault weapons. He's not a member of the NRA. But even this liberal guy in liberal Berkeley, even he found a gun to love. And it turned out that it was a very particular kind of gun. It was a kind of gun that every time he showed it to another man, the reaction was always the same. The guy always said, "I want one of those too." It was a potato gun. In his front yard, overlooking sparsely populated hills, he gave Kitty a lesson in its operation.

Kitty Felde

Everybody in the neighborhood is making these?

Jim Gray

Everybody in the neighborhood. This is my spud gun, a homemade spud gun made out of ABS sewer pipe. It's a piece of inch and a half ABS to a reducer that goes to a three inch ABS combustion chamber, female coupling and a male plug. The propellant is hairspray, which is the amazing part.

Kitty Felde

We'll get to that in a minute. Now this is-- who thought this up?

Jim Gray

It was shown to me actually by a guy who's almost quasi-militia. His buddy showed it to him. They like to fire it at night for the blue flame. And I made one here. And instantly, all my neighbors had to have one. My neighbor right next door built one. But anyway, it has potatoes as ammunition. Cram the potato down the barrel It's actually a potato musket, also referred to as a potato cannon, but I call it the spud gun.

Kitty Felde

You didn't use all of the potato there.

Jim Gray

Well, only that will fit in the inch and a half pipe. You have to use a potato that's bigger than the inch and a half pipe so that you totally fill the pipe up.

Kitty Felde

And now you're using this long dowelling.

Jim Gray

Yes, it's a ramrod, just as musket people use, pushing the wadding down into the barrel. The next step is three, one-second blasts of Aqua Net hairspray into the combustion chamber. Quickly putting the male plug in.

Kitty Felde

He's screwing on the end to this plastic piping device.

Jim Gray

Now watch this direction.

Kitty Felde

Oh wait, this is going to be really loud, isn't it? I've got to get back. This is too loud for my ears.

Woman

Explain how you're igniting it.

Kitty Felde

Yeah, how are you igniting this?

Jim Gray

This is a Coleman lantern igniter. You spin the gnarled end, and you get a spark on the inside.

Kitty Felde

Wait, I've got to back up. OK. Oh, and now the spud has taken a lovely arc, about 100 feet away, and has dropped behind the trees over there.

Jim Gray

And that is totally useless. We just wasted a potato.

Kitty Felde

Now what are you doing?

Jim Gray

Well, I'm using the vice grips to unfasten--

Kitty Felde

It looks like a giant pair of pliers, about a three-inch wide end on the pair of pliers. You're unscrewing the coupling?

Jim Gray

That's true.

Kitty Felde

To reload?

Jim Gray

To reload. It's a slow process. If you were being attacked by an army, you'd be dead by now.

Kitty Felde

I would think the liability problems of having spuds landing in people's yards, perhaps on their bodies, would be a problem.

Jim Gray

Yes, that's why we sort of do it secretly. Oh, a good one, a good one actually.

Kitty Felde

I can't even see it.

Jim Gray

Yeah, that was about 450 feet, something like that. That was a long one.

Kitty Felde

So none of the neighbors have complained about this? They've just asked, "How can I make one myself?"

Jim Gray

That's pretty much been the-- usually, it's a guy thing. It's a guy thing. And usually, I show it to the guys, and they instantly want me to either make one for them or show them how to make one. And I'd say there are at least half a dozen spud guns that have sprung from the original here. The legality of the thing is a little bit questionable. I've actually asked police, and the police wanted me to show them how to build one when I described it to them.

Ira Glass

If I can just jump in here for a second. So Kitty stands out there with her cousin's husband, and at some point a neighbor comes over. And they get to talking about all the improvements they're making in the spud gun. And as they talk, you start to realize the boy desire for gun and gun-ness is so powerful that these guys are gradually reinventing the gun. They are slowly turning the spud gun into a real gun.

Jim Gray

Well, as soon as I showed it to my neighbors, they decided to do design improvements. They tried increasing the size of the combustion chamber. They tried decreasing the size of the combustion chamber. They tried putting a valve in so they could inject pure propane as opposed to the hair spray to get a more explosive mixture. They tried different materials for the gun itself. And here comes Tom with a couple of version two with a longer barrel. Let's go talk to Tom.

Kitty Felde

So, Tom, this is the Mach 2 version?

Tom

Yeah. We've decided that the longer barrels don't really make any difference. Both Jim and I have tried shooting next to each other. Both have about the same range. We've also used propane as opposed to hairspray. That doesn't seem to matter either.

Kitty Felde

Whoa, that had nice arc to it. Very nice arc.

Jim Gray

I took it to job site, and the roofer was up on the roof, roofing. And I fired it off, kaboom. We were up on a hillside. It arced way out there, and the roofer poked his head over and said, "You've either got to make me one or show me how to make one."

Kitty Felde

So is there a name for this loose-knit organization of spud gun owners?

Jim Gray

Well, not yet. We're actually trying to avoid any-- we're hoping not to be considered a group. We don't want the attention of any law enforcement agencies that might track us down and consider us militia or some other weird--

Kitty Felde

I mean there's no unifying political.

Jim Gray

There is absolutely no unifying political. No, this cuts across the spectrum from liberal to conservative, nothing unifying politically at all about these things. It's a guy thing. That's all there is.

Ira Glass

Kitty Felde.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Found Tape. Well, our program today is about lessons. And when we turn to John Connors, a guy who helps us find music for our program, for songs, when we ask him for songs, he said that it turns out that there are lots of records that are lessons of various types. In fact, I've got a whole big bunch of them here that he gave us. Here's one on wine from a guy-- "How do I know which wine to serve at dinner, Mr. Seashell? Which is a vintage wine, and what is the difference between vintage and non-vintage?" Well, this record right here answers the questions on that. Here's Bazaar's "Secret formula for a beautiful new you."

But I have to say, the favorite of our little radio staff is one that defies all normal description. Let's just go to it, shall we?

Helen Gurley Brown

Hello, I'm Helen Gurley Brown, and I wrote a book called Sex and the Single Girl. I had so many things left over to say, not necessarily to single girls, but to married girls and men, that I'm putting some of them on this record. There's so much to cover, really, that I think we'll just move right along. Let's start with some advice to men on how to have an affair.

Now, I'm not for promiscuity, but I think it's ridiculous to pretend that it doesn't exist. And I think there's far less hurt and more joy for everybody if certain rules are followed. The way not to have an affair start, in my opinion, you're a married man, is to run to the girl and say, "Honey, my wife's taken the kids to the country. The coast is clear for you and me." The fact that this is a convenient time for you has absolutely nothing to do with the situation, It certainly isn't any aphrodisiac. It might even be more flattering to the girl if your wife were in town.

Another thought, on the first date, don't suggest that obscure little lobster house 50 miles up the coast, which you think is delightfully quaint. She knows what you're doing. You're hiding her out. In the beginning at least, be sure you go first class.

All right, let's say the affair is on. How do you keep her happy? Never assume the physical relationship is the all out rewarding thing for her that it for you. It just isn't. Even if she does enjoy your beautiful, bronzed body-- and you know she does-- this is America. She's a nice girl. She's this product of what her mother and her grandmother told her, and they probably told her never to do what she's doing with you.

Also, her body needs to have a baby. A lot of men offer her sex, not your superior brand of course, but what she'd really like to hear from somebody is an offer of marriage. Presents take the pressure off, so do give them. Money is a perfectly wonderful present. You know, it isn't half as insulting as you'd like to think. A nice share of General Motors, or a US E bond, tucked in with a bottle of Arpage, really are very hard to take offense at.

Don't expect your girl to share your wish not to be seen or to keep the lipstick off your collar. That's your responsibility. Maybe it sounds perverse, but a girl may actually take a certain offbeat pride in being seen with somebody else's attractive husband. If you do run into friends of the family, don't try to burrow your way to China. Just smile and be gracious and introduce everybody all around if you're trapped. No explanations and no apologies.

Never drink up her booze without replacing it. You really ought to bring a lot more than you consume. Never, never, never let her spend her birthday alone, even if you have to lie your way into purgatory to get out of the house. Never lie to her about little things. The big lie you're living, that someday the two of you are going to be married, is going to be hard enough to explain when the time comes. Be sure she can trust you in smaller matters. Treat your girl with great dignity, like a princess. Never, never cheat on her with anyone but your wife.

Ira Glass

The record is called Lessons in Love, Helen Gurley Brown. Some of the other little sections on here, "How to love a man if you aren't pretty, black magic for non-glamour girls." "It works too," it says. "Unfaithful wives' tales, how they out-cheat their unsuspecting mates." "How to love a boss, ways a girl can make herself invaluable, keeping him happy and her fire-proof." "How to talk to a man in bed." And let's see, "Little man, you'll have a busy day. You can be especially successful with women if you're short." And here's this one.

Helen Gurley Brown

Now I want to talk about secretaries. A secretary offers the only kind of polygamy we recognize in this country, the chance to have a second wife at the same time you have your first one and not go to jail. If you select her carefully, she can be the loveliest of all fringe benefits. And to think, the company pays for her. Turning your secretary into a girlfriend has one big advantage. You know where she is most of the time. If that's what you want, then I suggest you just follow the preceding rules about getting any other girl to the brink and keeping her happy after she's there.

However, I'm inclined to go along with the Broadway musical number that says a secretary is not a toy. Why not let one of the other guys at the office hire the gorgeous girl for a secretary, and then you borrow her for whatever you had in mind. And that way, you can keep your own secretary to do more important things like running your life and bolstering your ego and protecting you and mothering you and covering for you and sending out for sandwiches. If the the girl who should be doing all that is a ravishing redhead that you're off your rocker about, you'll wind up doing those things for her.

Besides, all romances end, or they end in marriage, and you'd soon be out of a secretary again. If you want to play it smart and have your secretary love you and stay with you a long, long time, then follow these rules. Bring her presents from your trips, a baby--

Ira Glass

All right, all right. Let's see. Let's move on, shall we, in our little collection here?

Woman Narrator

We sincerely hope this record will be helpful in teaching your parakeet to talk. Remember that your bird is an imitator and learns to talk by listening to what you say, not only words and sounds, but inflections. Don't say, "Good morning." Say, [INFLECTING] "Good morning."

Ira Glass

The beautiful thing about this particular record is that it is so much more than just practical how-to. It doesn't just give you the important advice like, be diligent, pick a time every day to speak to your bird, make sure you're not trying to talk to your bird when he's eating, drinking or playing. It encourages you. It tells you how to take the right tone. And then it offers proof.

Woman Narrator

There are people who still doubt that a parakeet can actually talk. So we have recorded here the voice of one Chicago parakeet conversing with his owner. He is six years old and has a 400-word vocabulary.

[PARAKEET CHIRPING]

Woman Narrator

Hello, everybody.

Parakeet

Hello, everybody.

Woman Narrator

What is your name?

Parakeet

Peter. Peter talk.

Woman Narrator

Where do you live, darling?

Parakeet

1400 Lakeshore Drive, Chicago.

Woman Narrator

I think you're wonderful. Do you want some breakfast?

Parakeet

Yes, sir.

Ira Glass

It's really just amazing what they can get animals to do today. Well, that's from our little collection.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Peter Clowney and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and the fabulous Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Production help from Jorge Just, Julie Snyder, [? Amy Takahara, ?] Sylvia Lemus, Todd Bachmann, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Well, you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia, who recorded this at a recent staff meeting.

Mr. Switzer

It's the mostest of the funnest.

Colin

I don't want to.

Mr. Switzer

You want to do this.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week, if we have the courage, with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.