Transcript

438:

Father's Day 2011
Transcript

Originally aired 06.17.2011

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Elena's dad moved to China, but here's the kind of thing that he does. On Christmas Eve every year, Elena and her mom drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to her grandmother's down in Chicago.

Elena

So he-- since he's overseas, he doesn't make that trip with us anymore. So he'll watch the weather, and send me emails about how the drive's going to be.

Ira Glass

A recent email began comparing the temperatures in Wisconsin with temperatures in Illinois, and warning her that quote "the greater danger will lie in the colder Wisconsin portion, hazardously slipping from water to ice and back." Elena read me the letter.

Elena

"Icy conditions could suddenly appear, particularly on bridges and overpasses. In such conditions, I test periodically by first slowing down, then, with no traffic around, just touch the brakes a bit to test for slippage. If any at all, slow down and maintain plenty of distance from cars ahead. Let the fools and cowboys roar on to their wreckage."

Ira Glass

You can't that? "Let the fools and cowboys roar on to their wreckage." In case you're wondering, when Elena got this letter, she had been driving in snow and ice for over a decade.

Elena

"If you feel yourself slipping, steer gently towards the edge of the highway where the crusty, accumulated snow and ice may keep you from spinning out. Sometimes there's a residue of sand on the shoulder and coarser pavement to grip. Sorry to give you advice, but I'm just passing on the fruits of a million miles in all kinds of weather. Love to all, Dad."

Ira Glass

So what did you make of that?

Elena

Well, I mean, it's pretty typical. I said it reminds me of a manual for someone who's never driven in winter before. It's a mix of, I rolled my eyes, and, oh gosh, here we go again. But, at the same time, I thought it was really sweet and endearing. You know?

Ira Glass

Dads, man. We guys can have a hard time reaching out and telling our kids we love them. Take Jessica, whose father, a farmer who didn't really show his feelings much through physical affection. One day, when she was around 14, out of the blue walked up to her, and started patting her on the shoulder. And she says, soon he was doing this all the time. He did this every day to her.

Jessica

But eventually it came to a point where I really, really disliked it. I would dread it. I would know it was coming. I could hear him approaching behind. And even developed a sense to realize, where is my dad? When is this going to happen?

Ira Glass

She asked him to stop, he wasn't able to stop. She couldn't understand this behavior. And then she found out from her mom that her dad had been listening to a show on Christian radio, she thinks it was probably James Dobson, and he heard somebody on the show give the advice that people in your family need to be touched a certain number of times per day in order to feel loved. And this was how he was going to do it.

Ira Glass

What if your dad had actually done this in a way where it was clear that what it was about is that he was trying to show you that he loved you? In other words, what if your dad-- you'd be in the kitchen, and your dad would be in the kitchen, and just out of the blue he would say, hey, I love you. Give me a hug. Would that have worked?

Jessica

Um, I would have thought something was wrong with him. Like having a breakdown or something. Then it would have been, Mom, what is wrong with Dad? Yeah, because it's not really his personality either. He's a little doomed in this.

Ira Glass

Still, guys want to reach out to their kids, right? In 2005, when Rachel was about to head off to college in New York, one night her family's sitting around watching TV--

Rachel

And my dad just turned to me and was, like, I'm building you an emergency terrorist attack kit to take with you to New York City.

Ira Glass

An emergency terrorist attack kit.

Rachel

It was completely out of nowhere. But I looked at my mom. And my dad has this one particular face he makes when you must take him seriously. His eyebrows get raised, and his eyes go really wide. And he stares at you. And he was doing that, so I didn't argue about it.

So the whole summer, my dad would find these different items to pack. Some of them were from weird Internet locations. You can only get a universal radio that did not require electricity that worked with every cell phone from a crazy website. This is not something they sell at every store. So he ordered this special radio, he ordered a NASA issued space blanket and flares and fuel pellets for a stove you only needed fuel pellets for. Potassium iodide pills, in the event of a nuclear attack. He was really proud every time he found a new object. Every time he thought of a new thing, he'd say, "I found something new for the box." And I'd laugh, I guess, because what else can you really do but laugh? And find it really one of those, oh Dad, type of things.

Ira Glass

So it comes time to go to school, Rache's dad packs all the gear into a nondescript three by three cardboard box, seals it up tightly with tape. Writes "Winter Coats" on the side so as not attract any attention, you know, from the wrong element. And then he sends Rachel off to college in the city that is, to be fair, probably the nation's most likely target for any terrorist attack. And he gives Rachel just one instruction, don't open this unless there's an attack. And she follows that instruction for a year. And for a second year.

Rachel

So I knew that there was $200 in there, and I was about to leave for London for my junior year. And I really wanted to go tanning before the summer really started, so I just decided to open the box and take out the $200. And I actually, when I did open it to get the money out, there was a letter inside from my dad that basically said, you know, if you're reading this, your mom and I love you and it was just-- oh my God, I'm actually get choked up thinking about it, I've never gotten choked up think about it-- but it was basically a letter. Just saying, if you're reading this, something really bad has happened. I just want you to know that your mom and I really, really love you. And everything's going to be fine.

You know, my dad and I, we talk, and we communicate. But neither one of is very good at talking about our feelings. And it was just really sweet. It was really sincere. It was like one of the most sincere things I've ever gotten from him.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, for Father's Day, we have stories of dads reaching out to kids in very dad-like ways, which-- I mean, these stories anyway-- means that dads are not always so direct in saying their feelings. They use the tools that they know. Which means instructions. Which means disaster preparedness. Or, like my dad, one of the big ways that he can show his love is by helping me every year with my taxes, which I love. I love my dad.

Anyway, we have Jonathan Goldstein, we have Michael Ian Black, we have a dad who was not born in this country and has yet to learn the ways of American dads, which are very, very tricky. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass, stay with us.

Act One. Astro Boy Meet Robot Dad.

Ira Glass

Act one, "Astro boy meet robot dad." We start with this story of a dad and kid and the space between them. From Michael Ian Black.

Michael Ian Black

My own father wasn't the best father. Not because he didn't love us, but because he simply didn't know how to be around kids. He wasn't socially adept with adults, either, but with children he was hopeless. He didn't wrestle Or make dumb faces. Or play catch. Once he bought me a baseball mitt for my birthday, which I loved, except for the fact that I am a lefty and he bought me a right-handed mitt. It seemed equally possible to me that he was either unaware that baseball mitts came for both righties and lefties, or that he did not know that I am left-handed.

He was the first person I ever knew who owned his own computer. It was a hulking Tandy TRS-80. It did so much less than my brother and I did, and yet he spent so much more time interacting with the computer than with us. A popular activity with my dad on the weekends, when we visited him, was to hand my brother and I each a plastic bucket and tell us to go outside and pick the rocks out of his lawn. He called the game "go pick up rocks." So much fun.

Here's how he died. One night, the police find him pulled over in his car on the side of the highway. He's unconscious, with a head injury, the apparent victim of an assault. They think it occurred in the parking lot at Rutgers University, where he is taking night classes to get his Master's degree. He's 39 years old. He is brought to the hospital where doctors perform emergency brain surgery.

My brother Rick and I aren't told until the following day, after he is out of immediate danger. My brother and I visit him there a couple days later. I don't remember who took us, Mom or his second wife, Beth. My parents have been divorced for seven years, and the relationship is terrible. So it is probably Beth.

He's distant, and foggy, but recovering. Then one morning, we're asleep in our bunk beds. It's early. A school day. I hear Mom come into the room. "Boys, wake up," she says. My eyes open. She's standing beside our bed, where she can see us both. She is unhesitant. "Your father died last night."

She says it quick, almost blowing the words out with her breath. "The hospital gave him a medicine he was allergic to. An accident. I'm so sorry," she says. She begins weeping huge convulsive sobs. "I'm so sorry," she says, again and again. She runs from the room, leaving Rick and me alone.

The news is so swift and shocking that I cannot process it at all. Dead? In what way, dead? Above me, I hear Rick began to cry, and after a moment I start crying, too. Because I don't know what else to do. Crying seems like the appropriate response, and I'm still young enough, 12, that I can summon tears without too much effort. We lay in bed doing that for a while, and I wonder if I will have to go to school today. No. No school today, or for the rest of the week.

Mom takes Rick and me to work with her that day, because there's nothing else for us to do. She and her partner Arlene own a small stationery store in a crummy flea market. The day passes in a haze. We don't talk about Dad. We don't talk about anything. On our way home, we stop at the video store. Mom tells us we can pick out whatever movie we want. We choose The Blues Brothers, which is rated R. Normally, we are not allowed to rent R-rated movies. She glances at the box but doesn't say anything. Awesome.

A small, shameful part of me begins to see the upside to Dad dying. For the foreseeable future, it seems like I will get away with whatever I want. Staying up late, R-rated movies. Maybe even the Holy Grail of childhood contraband, sugar cereals. Our cereal cupboard is normally filled with high-fiber, lesbian-friendly cereals, like Product 19 and Special K. Yes, Arlene is her partner and her partner. Surely a boy who has just lost his father is not to be denied a box or two of Frosted Flakes in his grief. Surely not.

Even as I am having these thoughts, I am aware what a horrible person I must be. Who thinks like this? Who thinks about using the death of a parent as a means to get sugar? As it turns out, me. Why do I not feel tormented with grief? Isn't that what you're supposed to feel when a parent dies? Am I defective?

We have nothing to do before the funeral two days from now, so Rick and I sit around the basement by ourselves, watching game shows and soap operas. We don't talk about it. Anyway, what is there to say? "It sucks that Dad died." "Pretty much." "Can you turn The Price is Right on?" "Sure."

I keep flashing back to an incident that happened a year or so before, when Dad was dropping us off at home after one of our weekends with him. He was not a demonstrative man, and it occurred to me that I couldn't remember him ever telling me that he loved me. I didn't doubt that he did, but he'd never said it, and I had never said it to him. So I decided to tell him I loved him. I'm not sure why I felt the need to do it at that moment, it just seemed important.

That night, I waited for Rick and our younger sister Susan to get out of the car. When they were clear, I gathered up my courage, and blurted out, "I love you, Dad." Then I ran from the car, up the sidewalk, and into the house. If he responded, I never heard. That's what I keep thinking about in the basement as Rick and I watch the Big Showcase Showdown wheel on The Price is Right, spinning on its axis, around and around and around.

The next day, our stepmother Beth picks us up, and we drive with her to the funeral home, a saggy, Gothic house near the highway. Inside, the place suffocates from wood and carpet. Beth asks if I want to go into the viewing where they've got Dad. "In a minute," I say, taking a seat on the bench in the hallway. She and Rick walk in to the room together, and I sit by myself.

I do not want to go in. Absolutely do not want to go. It's going to be creepy and I do not care for creepy things. Even Scooby Doo stresses me out. There's a lot of people milling around that I do not recognize. Work friends, maybe. People he knew from his neighborhood. My aunt Jane is also there with our cousins.

My father's father, who we rarely see, is there. What's it like for him? He doesn't say much. He doesn't cry, and he doesn't hug me or even shake my hand. All in all, he seems remarkably unperturbed. He used to be a cop. He lives another 25 years, but I never see him again.

Somebody checks on me. Am I OK? I nod, yeah, yeah. Never better. My new suit is uncomfortable and itchy around the armpits. Also I feel like I can't breathe and I might throw up. I'm good.

if I stay in the hallway, do I still get credit for having attended the funeral? Because I really don't want to go in. I'm out there for a long time. Eventually, I'm the only one left. Beth comes out, and she tells me they're about to start. If I'm going to go in, I should go in now. I do. I walk in, her hand on my shoulder, guiding me forward. Rick is already seated in the front row. Ahead is the coffin. And inside the coffin is my dad. It's an open casket.

I see him now, and I want to turn back but I won't. We get right up to it, and I stare at my father's face, the last time I will ever see it. He looks OK. He looks like himself.

I guess I expected to see some elemental change in him, some subtle but definitive signifier that says, this guy is dead. The fact that he's inside a coffin does a pretty good job of that, I guess, but I thought there would be something else. Some sort of mark. But there's not. He just looks like Dad. And it feels wrong that he should look exactly the same.

I'd heard people say the dead look like they're asleep, but that doesn't seem right to me. Dad looks like something other than asleep. He looks arranged. I could reach out and touch him if I want to, but I don't want to. I just need to stare at him a little longer, because I'm never going to see him again. And I try to sear his face into my memory. My dad looks like this. But it doesn't work.

I have a hard time really remembering what he looked like that day. But I can remember the feeling of his hand on my head when I am six, and we are at Indian Guides. And I remember his arm around my shoulder when I'm eight. And we pose in front of the statue of the world's tallest man at the Guinness Hall of World Records.

I can't tell if that is the same person I see in the coffin. Is that him? He's got the same soft, round face. The same brown dad mustache. And it surprises me that he looks so much like himself. The way I will be surprised, years later, when I study my own face in the mirror and finding it belonging to the face of a 40-year-old husband and father, older than he will ever be.

Sometimes I see his face in my own, and my own in my kids.

I stare at my father's face, and try to hold on to the moment, but there's nothing to hold. It's just a moment. And then it's gone.

The service is quick. I sit in the front row with Beth and Rick. Afterwards, people approach to shake our hands and tell us that they are sorry for our loss. "I'm sorry for your loss," people say. The language of death is curiously proscribed. It is the one occasion when the spoken word actually resembles the language of greeting cards.

The most awkward example of this occurs the next week when I return to school. My best friend, Bradley, who I have not seen since Dad died, strides up to me at the bus stop, holding out his hand for me to shake. "I'm sorry for your loss," he says, the way he was undoubtedly instructed to do by his parents. How odd, this formality. Two 12-year-old boys shaking hands at the playground bus stop. I want to laugh and pump his hand and say in a bad British accent, "Pleasure to make your acquaintance."

But instead I just thank him, because I cannot think of anything else to do. Then we both kind of kick at the playground wood chips and find ourselves, for the first time in our lives, with nothing to say to each other. I come very close to crying at the bus stop.

When the service is over, we get into a limousine for the long drive to the cemetery. It is the first limousine I've ever been in, and I have to pretend not to care. But I do care, because it's exciting to driving a car this big. There are real glasses lined up along the side. Beer and soft drinks on ice. Beth says we can have a can of Coke, if we want. I say no thanks, even though I think it would be pretty cool to sip a cold Coke from a real glass in a limousine, the way I imagine Billy Joel probably does every day of his life.

The cemetery is small and bucolic. Soon, the whole thing is over. Dad is buried, we drive home. I return to school. Nobody there seems to have noticed my absence at all.

Movie restrictions are put back in place. The cereal in our cupboard is once again the cereal of lesbians, and those who are suffering from constipation. Everything goes back to normal. But I don't.

Rather than feeling the loss of my father subside over the years, I feel it more acutely as time goes on. I want a dad. I want my dad. I still feel that way, 28 years later. Meanwhile, I hurdle through life like a running back, my arm forever outstretched to keep people from getting too close.

"Do you want to play Battleship?" my son Elijah asked me the other day. "I'm busy," I said. At the time, I was online trying to figure out how much money Charlie Sheen is worth. Last week, I was yelling at my son and daughter to sit correctly in their chairs because it is dinner time. And the fact that they refuse to sit correctly infuriates me, because that is not the way we sit at dinner. I'm suddenly unrecognizable to myself. A person who yells at other people about what is and is not the correct way to sit on a chair, as if I'm this snooty judge on a reality show about sitting in chairs.

The other night I tell Elijah I'm leaving town for work for a few days. I'd been gone for several days the week before, and when I tell him I am leaving again, he starts to cry. My wife, Martha, thinks he cries too much. I don't. I cried a lot, too, when I was nine. "You're gone too much," he says. He's right. I am. I tell him I hate leaving so often, but I will be home in a few days, and when I get back from this trip, I will be home for several weeks in a row. "You promise?" he asks. "I promise," I say.

He hugs me around the neck and says through his tears, "You're the best dad a kid could ever ask for." It's the kind of thing that would make me throw up if I saw a kid say that on TV, but this is my kid, and my life. And it is such an earnest, heartbreaking moment that I almost burst into tears myself. I mean, doesn't he know what an a-hole I am?

I stifle my own tears because if I start blubbering, it will probably just have the effect of terrifying him. Instead, I hug him back and I tell him he's the best son a dad could ever ask for. And I am careful to say he is the best son a dad could ever ask for, not the best kid, because that would imply favoritism with his sister, which would be wrong. Because she is my favorite.

That was a joke. Now I feel awful for making that joke, although not awful enough to ask them to cut it out of this story. Because it was funny. You see what I am saying? proof that I am an a-hole. Where was I? Right.

I kiss Elijah goodnight and I tell him that I love him, just as I have told him every day since he was born. On the way out of Elijah's bedroom, my mind flashes back to that night when I felt the need to flee my dad's car after telling him I loved him. Now that I'm older, and a father myself, I find my memory shifting from my own point of view, the point of view of the child, to imagining myself as my father.

I can easily put myself now in his place, in the driver's seat, watching a boy not much older than my son is now, running away, embarrassed. I know what it means to feel so far away, even when you're right there. Through the windshield, I watch him dash up the sidewalk. I watch him go up the stairs and disappear into the house, the front door closing behind him.

Ira Glass

Michael Ian Black reading an excerpt from this book that he's writing called You're Not Doing It Right, which comes out early next year. He has a stand-up comedy special airing on Comedy Central this August.

[MUSIC -- "PAPA WAS TOO" BY JOE TEX]

Act Two. I Just Called To Say—Something That's Hard to Say, That I Really Should Say More Often...

Ira Glass

Act two, "I just called to say-- something that is very hard to say, that I really should say more often..." Well, now we'll hear another case study of a dad who has trouble saying a certain phrase to his child. And the dad in this case gets put to the test. Jonathan Menjivar has this story about this tough dad, and his now tough-skinned kid.

Jonathan Menjivar

The kid in the story is a girl. Her name is Naomi Azar and she's the youngest of four kids. The baby. She's in her 30s now, but she says that as a child she was afraid of her dad. So her sister would hold her hand--

Naomi Azar

And my sister would take me to him and gently help me stroke his back, to teach me that he's OK, he's not going to bite.

Jonathan Menjivar

Like he was a Doberman or something. He was that intense. His name is Shaul Azar, and he's one of those immigrant tough dads. He was born in the Middle East. As a kid, he sold chickens on the black market. And then he came to America and, from nothing, he starts his own real estate business. The guy owns more than 30 buildings in Chicago now.

And if that part sounds familiar, this will too. I don't know why, but immigrant dads seem to follow a sort of script. I say this as someone who is the son of an immigrant dad.

Anyhow, Naomi dad's Shaul, he could be harsh. He once called Naomi stupid and ungrateful because she was chopping peppers the wrong way. But he was sweet, too, almost sappy. When Naomi was 18, he took her on a trip to Egypt and Jordan. Just the two of them.

Naomi said she knew her dad loved her, but he never expressed it. He worked all the time. Gave his kids everything they needed. That's the way he said I love you.

Naomi Azar

I don't really remember hearing him really say those words. I think the only time I started to hear him tell me that he loved me was when I started to tell him, regularly, that I loved him. Some dads would get off the phone and automatically say "I love you." He'll say, "Thank you very much."

Ira Glass

Which is why it was weird when Naomi started getting these calls from her dad. Shaul had been at dinner with one of Naomi's sisters. Her sister's husband is a rabbi. And at dinner, the cantor from his synagogue is there with his wife. And Shaul is arguing with her-- it doesn't really matter what it was about-- but eventually, the cantor's wife turns to Naomi's dad and asks him if he loves his children.

Naomi Azar

The cantor's wife basically called him on the fact that he feels all this love and respect for his children-- she's assuming, but I believe he does-- but that he doesn't ever express it. And really he should be telling us that he loves us.

Jonathan Menjivar

And she basically asks him to prove it. She gives him this challenge. She tells Shaul, I want you to call each of your four children, every day, for a month. And when you call them, I want you to tell them "I love you." Naomi was on vacation when he called the first time.

Shaul Azar

Naomi, this is Daddy [? Warbuck ?]. I heard that you rented a cabin and you're having fun. I'm very, very proud of you. And somebody, you know, the cantor's wife, Sydney, said to me I should call up all my children every day and tell them that I love them. So I'm doing what she tells me to do.

Woman

And she's the first one.

Shaul Azar

OK, and you are the first one I am calling. Does it make any difference? Let me know, please. Bye.

Naomi Azar

I was really surprised, and I was really touched. It was really sweet to hear him say it, and even just the tone of his voice around it. Like, my dad, really? He's going to call me every day? He's going to do that kind of thing? He is going to open himself up in this way?

Jonathan Menjivar

He didn't call the next day. But the day after that, he tried to make up for it, though he clearly has his eyes on the finish line.

Shaul Azar

Naomi, this is the third day, and I missed yesterday. So I'm telling you twice. I love you, one for yesterday. And I love you, one for today. I cannot wait until the month is over.

Naomi, this is the third day. I'm saying love you again. Twenty-seven days left. So, what have you been doing, did it snow in New York?

Jonathan Menjivar

The next day he didn't call, or the day after that. Or the one after that either. Three days. That's all he could handle. His big experiment was over.

[PHONE RINGING]

Shaul Azar

Hello?

Naomi Azar

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Shaul Azar

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Naomi Azar

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Jonathan Menjivar

This is of course Naomi's dad, Shaul Azar.

Naomi Azar

So I want to introduce you to Jonathan, he's on the phone.

Jonathan Menjivar

Hi Mr. Azar.

Shaul Azar

Jonathan?

Jonathan Menjivar

Yeah, my name's Jonathan.

Shaul Azar

Good morning, Jonathan.

Jonathan Menjivar

Good morning, how are you?

Shaul Azar

OK. Talk to me.

Jonathan Menjivar

It's nice to meet you.

Shaul Azar

Thank you.

Jonathan Menjivar

So, Naomi's been explaining this challenge that you were put on, to call each of your kids. And then she explained to me that it only lasted three days.

Shaul Azar

Right. [LAUGHS]

Jonathan Menjivar

What happened?

Shaul Azar

Well, she gave me a challenge for a month. I just felt funny. I felt funny to tell them I love you and this and that. I felt-- it's not me. And that's why I could not take it more than three days.

[LAUGHTER]

It is not by word, it is by feeling. And all my children know that I love them, and I'll do everything for them. At the beginning, it was fun. But after three days, I felt a little bit phony.

Naomi Azar

Did your parents ever tell you that they loved you?

Shaul Azar

Never. They never called me, I love you. But they loved me.

Jonathan Menjivar

And you knew that.

Shaul Azar

I always felt that they loved me, because the society was different. I believe that parents should tell their children every once in a while, "I love you." But I think parents should tell-- maybe when they were small, of course we told them that we love them. But now they are all married, and you don't want to tell them "I love you."

[LAUGHTER]

Do you have children?

Jonathan Menjivar

I have a little girl, yeah.

Shaul Azar

I'm sure you tell her you love her every day.

Jonathan Menjivar

I do, yeah.

Shaul Azar

But how about when she is 25?

Jonathan Menjivar

We'll see, I guess.

Shaul Azar

We'll see. That's right. That's right.

[LAUGHTER]

Maybe I should have done it. I don't know. Naomi, what difference-- did you feel lack of love if I did not do it?

Naomi Azar

Well, I wanted you to succeed. When you say that you felt phony, maybe it was, like, you didn't actually-- you weren't hit with a wave of feeling love every day of the month. And so, for you, it didn't feel genuine to call on a Wednesday when you weren't actually feeling that kind of loving feeling, is that right?

Shaul Azar

Uh-huh. You see, Jonathan, I love this girl the most. But it's just one hair above the rest. She is a hiker, she likes to travel, she has a bicycle. All the things I like.

[LAUGHTER]

Naomi Azar

She has a bicycle.

Jonathan Menjivar

Naomi, I wanted to ask you, in the first message, your dad says, "does it make any difference, let me know please." So, I guess, did it make a difference?

Naomi Azar

Yeah. It did make a difference.

Shaul Azar

Really?

Naomi Azar

Yeah. Because I know that you love me, but it's different to hear you say it. I was excited, and I was proud of you for doing it, Dad. Yeah.

Shaul Azar

So maybe I'll start doing it again.

Naomi Azar

[LAUGHTER] I'll save all of those messages to you.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar, he's a producer on our show. He is celebrating Father's Day with his daughter, Sasha, who is 16 months old.

Coming up, the guy who explained to us years ago on our program about the greatest phone message in the world. A phone message about why the Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] herself. He's back, for Father's Day, with two daughters. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Mister Baby Monitor.

Angie

And every day when we would pack his lunch-- it was practically every day-- he went sing the Thermos song. I would watch him and he'd ask me about my day, and then he would sing me the Thermos song. So he would be, like, [SINGING] "I am picking out a Thermos, for you, for you, not an ordinary Thermos, for you, for you." It goes on and it's this goofy little song.

Another thing was, every year when the new phone book came out-- I was from a really small town, so the phone book was probably an inch and a half think.

Ira Glass

Right.

Angie

But he would freak out. And he'd run to the front door. And he be like, "The new phone book's here. The new phone book's here." Me and my brother would gather around, and he'd flip through all the pages and he'd be like, "Here we are. Our name's in print, our name's in print." Every single time, every year, we would do that.

So when I was in college, my roommate thought I was crazy. I was in the phone book for the first time. And I was like, "The phone book's here, the phone book's here, we have to find ourselves." And I would actually sing the Thermos song, too. Just randomly, when I would pack a lunch, you know you pick up things.

Ira Glass

So. Once she gets to college, Angie happens to catch a old movie that she had never seen, Steve Martin's 1979 The Jerk.

Angie

And it's really not very far into the movie that he gets a job in the gas station. He's really excited about working there. And the phone book comes. He freaks out. He just jumps around like my dad did. And we was, like, "The new phone book's here, the new phone book's here."

Steve Martin

Oh my God. The new phone book's here. The new phone book's here.

Man

I wish I could get that excited about nothin'.

Steve Martin

Nothing, are you kidding? Page 73. Johnson, Navin R. I'm somebody now. Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that makes people.

Angie

And I immediately saw that, and I was like, holy crap. That's what we do. So I'm watching the movie, and then later on he's falls in love with-- I guess it's Bernadette Peters stars in the movie, I think?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Angie

And he sings this song to her. He's like, "Honey, honey, I wrote you a song."

Steve Martin

Honey, guess what, I wrote a song for you this morning.

Angie

And he starts singing her this song.

Steve Martin

[SINGING] Oh, I'm picking out a Thermos for you. Not an ordinary Thermos for you.

Angie

At this point, I'm just like, whoa, wait a minute. Why is he doing that? And then I felt sort of wronged.

Ira Glass

And so did you call your dad?

Angie

Yeah. I called him up. I was like, hey dad, that's not yours. And he's, like, yeah, I know. And I was like, dad, it's The Jerk. And he's like, oh yeah. No, I love that movie. And I was like, did it ever occur to you that I'd never seen the movie? He was like, gosh, no, I never thought about it.

Ira Glass

Angie says it is impossible to imagine any part of the story happening with her mom. Lifting bits from an old Steve Martin film and planting them into a kid's life without ever thinking to mention where they came from. That is just a very dad-like behavior. When a dad sets the rules, it is his world and the kids have to live in it. Which brings us to the next act of our show, Act three, "Mr. Baby Monitor."

Jonathan Goldstein tells this story of a dad and how he runs his house.

Jonathan Goldstein

My friend Josh is a stay-at-home dad. Recently, someone asked me what Josh did before he was a stay-at-home dad. And I said, he was a stay-at-home.

Home is where Josh has always shined. Home being the place he'd become absorbed in his many projects. Meticulously categorizing his music collection or stockpiling yet-to-be-read newspapers into tilting monoliths. Or, much to his neighbor's sorrow, teaching himself to play the castanets. But now Josh's newest home project, the project that's taken over everything else, is the raising of his 20-month-old twin daughters, Matilda and Juliette. He brings to it a certain similar thoroughness.

Even in the old days, Josh was difficult to get out of the house. Scheduling a beer together often required the kind of constant back and forth one usually associates with lunar landings. But now, getting together is pretty much out of the question. None of our friends ever see him, and he pretty much never returns anyone's phone calls. People are starting to give up on Josh, and I guess I was starting to give up too. Until a recent conversation I had with his wife, LeeAnn.

"Please get him out of the house," she said. "Even just for an hour." If Josh acts with LeeAnn anywhere near the way he does with me-- that is, hostile, overly didactic, and so controlling as to forbid your use of certain words he doesn't approve of, a constantly growing roster that, at last check included, goo, bum, smoothie and lover-- the woman was in desperate need of a break.

So I decide to just show up at his home with my tape recorder. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably also admit that I was motivated by a little something else. Actually missing the guy. A lot.

As soon as I walk into the house, Josh starts in. He is standing at the top of the stairs, holding one of his twins, Juliette.

Josh Karpati

So, you know what? Try to keep a little bit of physical distance from her, because she gets-- like that would be not something to do. Like, stay over there.

Jonathan Goldstein

Josh seems to think the microphone is making me appear sort of creepy.

Josh Karpati

Here you go, Boo Boo.

Jonathan Goldstein

But in his shorts and unkempt beard, talking in a voice reminiscent of Jennifer Tilly, it seems to me that he is the creepy one. Creepy and suspicious of why I wanted to record any of this, or do a story about him being a new dad in the first place.

Josh Karpati

Just to say, the fact that you're recording this-- and so I making myself [UNINTELLIGIBLE]-- makes me feel like the greasiest, dirtiest [BLEEP] on the face of the planet. It's actually like I'm prostituting my children. The kids are stripped down to their diapers, Josh is wearing a diaper, too. He says it makes the children more comfortable. I think he was wearing one long before he ever had kids.

Yeah, oh, can you please tickle her toes? Yah. Ticky, ticky, ticky, ticky, ticky, ticky.

Jonathan Goldstein

Josh is protective. Last time I saw him, we took the kids for a walk around the block. And as they started to doze in their carriage, fearing they might be awoken, he shushed a revving car, as well as a boy bouncing a ball on the sidewalk. For Josh, being a dad means forcibly remodeling the world so that it conforms to the needs of his children. No matter what.

Josh Karpati

Let me give you-- if there's one word of advice I can give to new parents out there, it's kill your pets now.

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah, where are the cats?

Josh Karpati

I repeat my earlier statement.

Jonathan Goldstein

While sitting in his yard, I notice an empty wooden rectangular box. Alive and well, two cats sit within it, sunning themselves. Josh tells me that the box is a sandbox. When I ask him where the sand is, I expect him to tell me that sand is too filthy and unsafe for children, that he prefers keeping a sandbox free of sand. But instead he tells me that they just haven't gotten around to filling it.

Josh Karpati

We have no time. And you know why we have no time? Because we have twins. Now, that word should be banned. You know what twins actually are? Two [BLEEP] babies at the same time. So that's what people should say, "Oh, I see you have two [BLEEP] babies at the same time. That must be [BLEEP] crazy. How do you manage that?" That's what it should be like. Because that's the reality.

Jonathan Goldstein

Because you think that twins doesn't get the idea across?

Josh Karpati

That's correct. People think, oh, I raised-- particularly older people-- I raised two children, I raised three children. How hard could it be? They were all different ages. Children are very, very different at different developmental stages. Two [BLEEP] babies at the same time, very, very different. That's all. So nomenclaturally, that's what I have to contribute. That's my great contribution to parenting philosophy in America.

Jonathan Goldstein

You feel like you always need to be around. You can't just leave the kids with LeeAnn.

Josh Karpati

That's correct. I don't currently quote, unquote "work." And you don't really need the quotes there. I don't make quote, unquote "money." Because I'm here all the time. It's also a certain style of parenting we have.

Jonathan Goldstein

Which is? How would you describe that style?

Josh Karpati

It's called attachment parenting. You try to foster a closeness, so you don't-- not so big on day care, at least in the early years. Not so big on nannies, things like that. More on having the parents present. With twins it's a very, very hard philosophy to put into action. You know, always got to be present. So I mean, I haven't gone out to a restaurant, I haven't gone out to a concert, or to a peep show, or anything in a long, long time.

Jonathan Goldstein

It's been over two years that you have just gone out and done something by yourself.

Josh Karpati

Generally speaking. The exception of an hour here, and hour there, which I usually used to go grocery shopping anyway. So technically speaking, no, I haven't. At all. Gone anywhere, done anything. At all.

Jonathan Goldstein

What with caring for the twins, sorry two [BLEEP] babies, neither he nor LeeAnn have gotten more than a few hours sleep in the past couple of nights. Nevertheless, Josh does admit that, as the girls are approaching their second birthday, things are starting to change. Starting to get a little bit easier. Which prompts me to boldly ask the burning question.

Jonathan Goldstein

So what do you say? I mean, you're talking about how it's hard to organize, and make use of the time. I mean, I'm here now. You want to go around the corner and get a souvlaki? You know, for old time's sake?

Josh Karpati

Not at this time of night. It can't be done. I mean, it could be done, but it'd be incredibly stress--

Jonathan Goldstein

Just for an hour, say. Forty-five minutes.

Josh Karpati

You have to understand that you know-- come to me in a year and we can go. But, you know.

Jonathan Goldstein

But, you, you--

Josh Karpati

Come to me in six months and we can go.

Jonathan Goldstein

But, but, but you were saying it's starting to change now.

Josh Karpati

Yeah, starting to change is not--

Jonathan Goldstein

You don't feel like you can get an hour--

Josh Karpati

Let me tell you something, when you start to change your clothes, are you ready to walk outside on the street? If you only have your undershirt on and no pants? Knowing you, probably, that's OK. But for most normal people it's probably not the greatest thing in the world. You got a pair of socks and your junk's hanging out.

Jonathan Goldstein

So when LeeAnn came to me, pleading, saying, please, get him out of the house, how do you answer to this? Do you think she doesn't know what she's talking about?

Josh Karpati

No, of course she does. I say the same thing to her. No-- look, don't make too much of it. Come on in. Take your shoes off.

Jonathan Goldstein

When we get back inside, in spite of the summer heat, Josh closes the living room window due to the fumes of an idling car parked in front of the house.

Josh Karpati

The other thing is I'd probably-- if you weren't here-- I'd probably yell out the window.

Jonathan Goldstein

Although the house is hot, the girls are in good spirits. and they are very, very adorable. But as I start to play with them, Josh tells me I'm not doing it right, and so he offers some helpful instruction.

Josh Karpati

Tickle her [BLEEP] belly button. Okay. Here we go. Tickle, tickle, tickle. Tickle, tickle, tickle.

Jonathan Goldstein

It's inevitable that the girls will, some day, possibly soon, come to find Josh's neuroses, obsession and paranoia just as difficult as everyone else does. And it'll be integral for Uncle Jonny to be there, to commiserate, to trash talk.

Josh Karpati

Tickle tickle tickle. Oh, she wants to touch your head. Take your hat off.

Jonathan Goldstein

To nurture their annoyance with Josh so that one day it, too, can grow big and strong.

Josh Karpati

He doesn't have much hair.

Jonathan Goldstein

No. It's moist.

Josh Karpati

Feel it. Feel it.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the radio show Wiretap, which is heard on the CBC, and on many public radio stations in this country as well. Josh Karpati only allowed to let Jonathan come over and interview him for the radio if we mentioned his Twitter feed, so if you want to hear more words that Josh once banned, @jkarpati. That is the letter J, K- A- R- P- A- T- I. And yeah, follow if you want.

Act Four. Bring Your Child to Work Detail.

Ira Glass

Act four, "Bring your child to work detail." For fathers who are locked up for decades behind bars, family relationships suffer, as you'd imagine. Or even disappear. That is, unless, they decide to do something about it. Get a little creative. Michael May has the story, from prison in east Texas.

Michael May

Daniel Johnson is 66 years old, and he's spent more than half of his life behind bars. It shows. He's pale, gaunt, and has lost most of his teeth. Before he went to prison, he'd fathered four children and built a successful insurance business. But Daniel had a dark side.

Daniel Johnson

I think it was a terrible ego problem I had. I used to be a debonair character, always athletic and I thought that women were pretty much in love with me. I was married at the time, had a mistress on the side. One of those kind of guys that flirted and bounced around from town to town. I was a businessman, often on trips and so forth. And I had women wherever I went.

Michael May

In 1970, he went through a bitter divorce and moved from Illinois to Houston. He remarried. Then, in 1977, Daniel met a woman who worked at his apartment complex, and he says they made plans to meet. When he made his move, she said no.

Daniel Johnson

I had something to drink that day, and when she threw up the rejection, my ego, I don't think tolerated that back then, and I just forced myself upon her.

Michael May

Daniel was convicted of rape and given a sentence of life in prison. Since then, he's gone through a successful reconciliation with his victim, which she initiated. But his family relationships never recovered.

Daniel Johnson

I really abandoned my children. Bradley will be 48. Michael is 46. Jacqueline is 45. And Tyler would be 34. When I lost them, through my own criminal acts, of course, that put a big void in my heart.

Jesse Johnson

I remember staying with my mother, like for, I think age four to five. But for some reason my mother lost custody.

Michael May

That's Jesse Johnson. Same last name as Daniel. As you'll hear it's an odd coincidence. By appearance, the two inmates couldn't be more different. Daniel is white and weathered. And Jesse is 34 years old. Black with youthful good looks. But they have a lot in common. They're both in prison for sexual assault, and they both know what it feels like to lose family.

Jesse never really knew his dad, and after he was separated from his mother at five, his grandmother had to take him in. He says she never really took to him, used to beat him. And he ran away when he was 11.

Daniel and Jesse connected almost immediately when they met five years ago. It was during rec time on the yard at Eastham prison in east Texas.

Daniel Johnson

We were out in the yard and I pretty much always stayed to myself. Exercised by myself and so forth. And walked around. And he was out in the yard, sitting there and as I often would do.

Jesse Johnson

I surely was, that's what it was. And he walked by and he asked me what was I reading.

Daniel Johnson

And I'd walk by and know some of the books that he'd be reading. And they were all motivational type books.

Jesse Johnson

And I showed him the book The Secret. Then he shared with me this the book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. And I was like, yeah, I read that one. I liked that book. You know, saying like he read it too.

Daniel Johnson

And that's how it started out.

Michael May

The two lived in different cell blocks, but they started meeting each other on the yard almost every day. And an informal mentorship began to develop. Jesse helped Daniel get in shape, and Daniel answered Jesse's questions about how to start a personal training business.

Jesse Johnson

If he try to work out for hisself, he'll over do it. He's very competitive. And so we'll go out on the rec yard every morning. And we work out every day, and we jog. He does my exercises and my aerobics.

Michael May

So what would you tell him about your experience?

Daniel Johnson

How I would go out and meet customers. How you meet and greet people. How you get business. How you advertise.

Michael May

Each of them told me they were happy to find someone that didn't just want to talk about street life. Drugs and women and crime. As their friendship developed, they began talking about things besides exercise and business. Personal stuff.

Jesse Johnson

Then he would tell me about his family. And that's what really made me get close to him. I started to feel open, because I wanted a family. I wanted to know how it feels to grow up to be loved. And he grew up in a loving home. You know, with a mother and a father. He was in a good environment, good neighborhood, good community. And I was, like, envious. I always wanted that kind of life. And really, I always wanted a father.

I started to think about him as my dad, I would say, in May of '09. In May. But I just kept it to myself.

Michael May

And then, one day, it slipped out. Jesse was talking to Daniel and he called him Dad. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. Daniel had already taken to calling him son.

Daniel Johnson

He told me one day, he said, you know-- and he was looking at me as a father anyway-- he kind of called me Dad, you know. He said, when I was born, I didn't have a father on my birth certificate.

Jesse Johnson

I wanted him to adopt me as his son. And I wanted to have him as my father. And he was in agreeance with it. He was, like, "I'd love to have you as a son." And I was like, yeah? Yeah.

Daniel Johnson

I said, you know, there's a big void in my heart, too, Jesse. I said, I've lost my children. And I said, it would wonderful for me to have a son. I'll adopt you.

Michael May

That's right. They decided they wanted to legally become father and son. And, believe it or not, even in prison, this is possible. Turned out to be a simple procedure for an adult to adopt another adult in Texas. Both parties have to agree to it, and a judge must sign off on the adoption papers. Daniel filed the paperwork and then waited. Months went by.

Daniel Johnson

And finally the judge wrote me a letter. And he said, "Mr. Johnson, why do you want to adopt him?" And in reply to that letter, I said, "There's a lot of love of a father within me. This love has found a child. It's found a home. It's someone I can call my son, who is not perfect, and I'm far from perfect. And we're going to do just fine, because I've accepted him, in my heart, as my son."

Michael May

When I asked them why they felt so strongly that they wanted to go this far, they said all kinds of things. It validated their relationship, it bound them together by law. But what it came to is that each of them was missing the kind of relationship the mattered to them most. They couldn't control much in their lives, or fix the past, but they could do this.

Jesse Johnson

I thought it was just God sent that he didn't have a relationship with his children, and I didn't have a relationship with my father. He fulfilled that spot that I always wanted. I always wanted some male figure in my life, somebody that I can look up to that had achieved something, that had done some things in life that I can say, hey, I want to do that. And someone that would just be there for me, that whenever I messed up, they wouldn't criticize me, they wouldn't hit me, they wouldn't be verbally abusive with me.

He would never be that way towards me. If he saw any of my shortcomings, my weaknesses, he would just inspire me. Like, that's OK, you can do better, take your time.

Daniel Johnson

I told him, I told him several times, son, you're just a younger me packaged a little bit differently.

Michael May

Finally, they heard back from a judge.

Michael May

Could you read the last paragraph.

Daniel Johnson

Yes. "It is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed, that Jesse Lewis Johnson, born March 5, 1977, in Liberty County, Texas, is the adopted son of petitioner Daniel K. Johnson for all purposes."

Michael May

The reactions at the prison were mixed. Daniel was in a wing of old timers who had no problem with the adoption. Jesse was in a high security wing, with younger guys, and it made some of them uncomfortable. Rumors circulated that the relationship was sexual. And the fact that it was an older white inmate adopting a black inmate made it worse.

Jesse tried to ignore the talk, but then he got attacked by a prisoner who snuck into his cell. Officials decided to send Jesse to another prison entirely. They said it was for his own safety. But Daniel and Jesse believed they separated them simply because they didn't approve of the adoption.

Now Jesse is at the Polunsky Unit, a prison an hour or so away.

Jesse Johnson

I feel rather lonely. I've been depressed a lot. I don't exercise as much as I used to no more. He writes me letters. We write, we correspond. But it's not the same.

Michael May

Jesse's petitioned the courts to try to get them moved back together again. But that doesn't look likely. They've also appealed Jesse's case to try to reduce his 60-year sentence. But the reality is, Jesse could be in prison long after Daniel is dead.

Michael May

So we're going to see Jessie in an hour or so. Do you have a message for him?

Daniel Johnson

You bet I do. Tell him I said I love him, I miss him. And to keep the faith, as we do. That we're going to see this thing through. And we're going to be together again. We're going to have a life out there in the streets. And tell him that I'm very, very proud of the courage he's displaying. Very proud of him.

Ira Glass

Michael May, he's the managing editor at the Texas Observer.

[MUSIC - "MY BABY'S DADDY" BY B ROCK AND THE BIZZ LYRICS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program is produced today by Robyn Semien, and myself with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Eric Mennel, music help from Jessica Hopper and Damien Grave. Seth Lind is our production manager, Emily Condon is our office manager. Jen Berman is filling in as our West coast producer.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for a program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's always trying to convince me that I am his favorite public radio host, and not Terry Gross. I finally asked him why.

Michael Ian Black

Because she is my favorite. That was a joke. And now I feel awful for making that joke.

Ira Glass

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

Male Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.