Transcript

483:

Self-Improvement Kick
Transcript

Originally aired 01.04.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/483

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I spoke with Julia Lurie the day that she tried something new with her students. She teaches English at an all-girls high school in South Korea, in the city of Gwangju. I reached her on Skype. And she told me that ever since she arrived in South Korea, she'd been really surprised by a bunch of things at her school.

Julia Lurie

There's a full-length mirror and a scale on every single floor of the school in the main hallway.

Ira Glass

And do girls use them?

Julia Lurie

Yeah, they use them all the time. A lot of them don't really think twice about it. And then I asked some of the girls about it, and they said, yeah, our principal wants them there because it's an all-girls high school, and he wants us to be skinny. And he made a joke that if we lose a certain amount of weight, then we can get a cafe. And my first response was like, OK, that's really messed up. My second response was just, that's really mixed messages.

Plastic surgery is super, super common. Like, one in five women in Seoul have it. A lot of my students want to get it after they finish their college entrance exams, as like a rewards of sorts.

Ira Glass

Is this plastic surgery to look more Western?

Julia Lurie

Yeah, exactly. So the most common is the-- it's called double eyelid surgery. But it's basically to put a crease in your eyelids so it looks like more Western eyelids. Other common ones are cutting down your jaw bones so that you have more a V-shaped face as opposed to a circular face.

Ira Glass

In class and on the bus, young women carry these hand mirrors, Julia says, big hand mirrors, like the size of a small dinner plate. And they're always pulling them out and checking themselves. Julia says the pressure on them to look a certain way is worse than in the United States.

Julia Lurie

When you are applying for university or you're applying for a job here, you put a picture of yourself on your resume or your application. And it is sort of taken for granted that how you look will often go into the decision of if you get into that university or if you get that job.

Ira Glass

Really? If you get into university, they'll decide based on how pretty you are?

Julia Lurie

Well, so I've had it explained to me as, if they have two equal candidates, like otherwise equal candidates, then the prettier person will get the job.

Ira Glass

And her students just see this is as normal, like there's nothing weird or disturbing about that at all. And so she wanted to talk to them about it, though she wanted to be careful how she did this. It would be easy to come off as condescending or preachy, or like, oh, this is so terrible. And she didn't want to do that. She just wanted them to know it's not like this everywhere. You could see all this differently. She recorded the class on her iPhone for us. She started with the basics.

Julia Lurie

Not ugly. OK, so raise your hand. Tell me, how does a beautiful woman look?

Student

White.

Student

White skin.

Julia Lurie

White skin. What else?

Student

Me.

Student

Big eyes.

Julia Lurie

Big eyes.

Student

It's me.

Julia Lurie

You!

Ira Glass

I don't know if you could hear it, one of the girls said "me" when asked what a beautiful woman looks like.

Julia Lurie

So I got "thin," "tall," "V-shaped face." We had this funny moment where they didn't know the word for "breasts," so I was teaching them the word for "breast."

Julia Lurie

[INAUDIBLE]. No, breast.

Students

A breast.

Julia Lurie

Breast.

Students

A breast.

Julia Lurie

OK, so--

Julia Lurie

So I'm drawing one on the board.

Julia Lurie

B cup?

Student

C cup.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Julia Lurie

A cup.

Ira Glass

They talked about how these ideas of beauty are subjective, which definitely was not news to these students. And then Julia explained some of the things that just surprised her as an American living in South Korea. That's how she put it. She wanted to sound as neutral as possible. This is just different than what she'd seen in America. We usually don't have scales and mirrors in high school hallways. We don't use photos on university and job applications the way Koreans do.

Julia Lurie

Photo, OK. In the USA, it is illegal, against the law--

Student

The law.

Julia Lurie

--to discriminate, to say no to a person because of how they look.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Julia Lurie

So I cannot say, [INAUDIBLE], you cannot work for me because you are ugly.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Technically, actually, this isn't true. Ugly people are not a protected group under United States law. But you get her point. Ugliness is not going to keep you out of Harvard. Julia showed them a graph so they could see how much plastic surgery women in South Korea get compared to women in other countries. They are number one, more per capita than anywhere. And they discussed all this. One girl said that that statistic made her feel ashamed as a South Korean.

And toward the end of the class, Julia asked them to write a couple sentences about self-improvement through plastic surgery, or scales in school hallways, or pictures on resumes, about why they were good or why they were bad. And about half of them thought good and half thought bad. Two of Julia's students surprised her by saying that they'd already had plastic surgery themselves. One of them wrote that it was good for her because it gave her confidence.

Julia Lurie

And the thing is, this is coming from my smartest class. And it was kind of hard to hear-- like, for scales, for example. Now that they're in high school, they're basically like, I like being able to check my weight and seeing if I should eat less or not. And they made the point-- and it's a really valid one-- that they want to make sure they're on track and not be stressing about it.

Ira Glass

It's interesting how much of their argument is, I want to be a success, and this is the way to success.

Julia Lurie

Mm-hm. It's very utilitarian. It just makes a lot of sense. I can imagine being here, growing up here, and just if this was one of the things that you had to do to succeed and do well, I'm sure I would consider it, too.

Ira Glass

Who learned more today, you or them?

Julia Lurie

I don't know. I was just gonna say, I think I went into this lesson being like, OK, just really, really try to be objective, or seem objective, and walked out of it being like, OK, they have very legit reasons for doing these things.

Julia Lurie

Did you learn anything today?

Students

Yes.

Julia Lurie

What did you learn?

Student

We are beautiful girls.

Julia Lurie

I think you are beautiful girls. I agree.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, it's the start of a new year. People are making resolutions. We have stories of people's self-improvement schemes-- yes, starting with the defense of teenage girls getting plastic surgery. I know, typical public radio political correctness, a defense of Asian teenagers getting plastic surgery to look white. Some of these schemes on today's show you may agree with, some you may not agree with. We have one that is about an entire nation going on a self-improvement kick. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Get off that treadmill, put down that celery stick, stop reorganizing your budget for the year, and stay with us.

Act One. Is that a Compass, a Map, a Toothbrush and a Bottle of Purell in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Ira Glass

Act One, Is that a Compass, a Map, a Toothbrush and a Bottle of Purell in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy To See Me? Elna Baker has this story of somebody taking the reins and daring to start over, to change his own life.

Elna Baker

I went to NYU with a guy named Daryl Watson. Unlike a lot of the other students, Daryl didn't come from money. He was there on a scholarship. And instead of partying or doing drugs, he spent his time writing plays, good plays. We kept in touch after college, but I hadn't heard from him in a little while, when in August 2009, I got the kind of email that's generally a cause for concern.

It said, "Hello, everyone, I'm writing to let you know that tomorrow I will be undertaking a pilgrimage for peace, walking across the country from Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware to San Francisco, California. I'll no longer be using this email address or the name 'Daryl Watson.' For the duration of this pilgrimage, I will carry the title carried by my predecessor, 'Peace Pilgrim.' My peace and love go out to you all."

Daryl's walk for peace across the entire country was supposed to take at least six months. Three days later, he posted an update on his blog. All it said was, "Peace Pilgrim down. Repeat, Peace Pilgrim down." I remember thinking, three days? That's it? What happened? I'd never gotten the story, so a month ago I called him and we met up.

Daryl Watson

Oh, I haven't seen you in years. And now all of a sudden we're in a radio station.

Elna Baker

I know. It's like the most official way to see someone.

He told me the back story. In 2007, Daryl was living in New York City and working at a children's TV show. That part I knew. His career was going well. What I didn't know is that he was also sort of falling apart. He'd been a devout Christian as a teenager. He'd even considered becoming a minister. But he'd left the church, and now, five years later, every night he was having these vivid dreams where people would talk to him about who we was, what his purpose was on earth, the meaning of life. He'd wake up confused and upset and exhausted.

The dreams started to preoccupy him during the day. They seemed more important than his waking life, to the point where he almost couldn't function.

Daryl Watson

Because I was wrestling with so much fear and so much doubt, I'd wanted an end to the ambiguity. I wanted my mission statement. You know how every business has a mission statement? You know what I mean? That's what I wanted. Like, you are Daryl Watson, you were born on this day, this is your purpose, this is how you're going to do it.

Elna Baker

All the dreams made him wonder if he had a spiritual calling that he was avoiding. Daryl wanted to feel a connection to God, a clear, unshakable answer. So he threw his career aside, left New York, and tried all the classics-- silent meditation and fasting for 40 days, a trip to Peru to study under a shaman, a holy trip to Jerusalem. He did this for a year. Nothing helped.

Finally, when he was just about to give up, he came across the story of Peace Pilgrim. Peace Pilgrim was a woman named Mildred Norman, who became famous in the 1960s in certain circles for walking across the United States and Canada and Mexico with no money or possessions, just a shirt that said "Peace Pilgrim." She followed Jesus' advice, to be like the lilies of the field, to trust that God would provide. She walked for 28 years. Here she is being interviewed in Pensacola in 1977.

Mildred Norman

I haven't got any money, and I don't even accept any money, and I don't belong to any organization, and I don't own anything except what you see. This is me and my only earthly possessions sitting in this chair. I walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don't even ask. It's given without asking.

Daryl Watson

I didn't know why other people weren't doing it.

Elna Baker

Peace Pilgrim's story had all the answers Daryl was looking for. She trusted God and it worked. God did provide for her, for almost 30 years. She had the unambiguous connection to God that Daryl desperately wanted. She had no doubt or fear, and her fearlessness inspired others.

Daryl Watson

I thought, why aren't more people giving away everything that they own and walking across the country? Of course, this is what you do. When you live in this world, as crazy as it is, this is what you do.

Elna Baker

So in August of 2009, Daryl decided to become today's Peace Pilgrim. He bought a blue t-shirt and spray-painted "Peace Pilgrim" across the front and "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace" on the back. Then he shaved his hair and his beard. After that, he cleared out his bank accounts and credit cards, putting all the money into an envelope he planned to give to charity. Lastly, he tore up his driver's license.

Just 10 days after first getting the idea, Daryl caught a bus to Delaware. That night, from a motel in Cape Henlopen, he sent the infamous mass email and then wiped his computer clean of files, including, shockingly, all the plays he'd written over the last eight years. He left his computer, phone, and iPod in the motel room, with a note for the cleaning staff to keep them. The next morning, August 30, Daryl began his walk.

He'd do what the original Peace Pilgrim did, trust that people would be moved by his faith in God and provide for him. So the only things in his pockets were a compass, a map, a toothbrush, and a bottle of Purell. No food, no sleeping bag, not even a coat. The first thing he wanted to do was give away the envelope with all his money, roughly $2,000.

Daryl Watson

That first night, I walked by a church and I thought, well, maybe I can give the money to whoever's at this church. And so there's a pastor there. And he and I start talking. And I try to give him this envelope full of money, and he gets a really suspicious look on his face. And he doesn't come right out and say it, but I think he probably thought that I stole it, because it's a good deal of money in an envelope. And he looked at it. I kind of laughed. I was like, oh, no, I didn't steal this. I withdrew it. Like, I withdrew all the money from my bank account. That's where I got the money. Do you want it?

Elna Baker

Something to know, the original Peace Pilgrim was a sweet-faced older white lady who started walking in the 1950s. Daryl is a tall, athletic 30-year-old black man walking in 2009. The pastor's reaction surprised him, but didn't shock him.

Daryl Watson

I wasn't like, oh my goodness, why would he think that I stole this? I think it was a reasonable suspicion regardless of what color I was, but I don't think being black helped. I was annoyed. But then I was like, well, maybe this is a chance for me to spread the message. You know what I mean? So then he and I started talking. And I told him why I was doing what I was doing. And he said, well, you know the only way to peace is really through Jesus.

And I was like, I understand what you're saying. I used to believe that myself. I disagree. And he was like, you're wrong. And I got into a sort of heated theological debate. And then, finally, I was like, well, maybe I should just be on my way. And he's like, you know what, I'm not gonna take your money. I think he was going to take the money. He actually was holding the envelope as he was debating with me. And then at a certain point, he was like, you know what, I'm not gonna take this money, because I feel like to take it from you, who's not a believer, would be sending the wrong message.

And then he said, Jesus said to the disciples, if you go into a town and you try to spread the gospel and they don't hear you, leave that town and then wipe the dirt off your feet. And let that be a testimony to that place. And he said, so I wipe my feet off at you. And that really bothered me.

Elna Baker

But Daryl couldn't dwell on it. He still had to get rid of the money and find a place to sleep. So he wrote "for charity" on the envelope and dropped it in the first mailbox he saw. Without any offers to stay inside, Daryl slept on the steps of the Catholic Church that night.

Daryl Watson

You know, it was just starting to get cold out. I didn't have a coat. I didn't have a sleeping bag. I didn't have really anything. And it was just concrete. And concrete is really cold. So that first night, I barely slept at all. And the second day, I walked into this college town. And I made it to some sort of fast food restaurant place. I stopped a lot at fast food places, because they let you have water for free. And then I would just sit there and just try to recover.

And this college kid saw my Peace Pilgrim shirt, and so he came over and started talking to me. And he's like, that's really crazy that you're doing this. Have you done anything like this before? And I was like, no. He's like, have you ever hiked long distance or walked long distance like this? I was like, no. He was like, hmm. He's like, you don't have any supplies or any food, anything like that?

And I said, I'm not worried about it. I think I'm just sort of trusting in God's providence to get me through. And he's like, well, you're definitely going to freeze. And he's like, I don't know what God's gonna help you do in the cold, because it's starting to drop. He's like, and once you hit the Midwest, there's gonna be snow. He's like, and you don't have anything. And he was wearing a sweatshirt, this red sweatshirt. And he took it off and he gave it to me.

Elna Baker

Wow.

Daryl Watson

And he was like, here. He's like, you're going to need this more than I am. And he was right, because that night, I think it was even colder than the night before. And there was a definite wind.

Elna Baker

By the end of day two, in a college town of all places, Daryl still hadn't been offered a crash pad. So he found a baseball field on campus with a dugout, and rolled himself like a burrito into a slab of AstroTurf. It was still cold, but he managed to get some rest. On day three, approximately 40 miles in, Daryl crossed his first state line into Maryland. It was a triumph. He'd walked across an entire state. Granted, it was Delaware, but still.

Now his route took him into a rural area, which meant fewer cars and fewer people to stop and talk with. Feeling incredibly alone, he tried to keep his mind on God, like Peace Pilgrim had, and to give up his fear. But oddly, things were working the other way around for him. He'd entered the journey fearlessly, and only along the way was he beginning to understand how many things there were to fear.

Daryl Watson

I finally got to a point where I just couldn't walk anymore. And there was still daylight out. And I'd wanted to walk all day, but I just didn't have the strength.

Elna Baker

Too tired to go any further, Daryl found another church, but it was locked. So he laid down in a covered concrete area behind it.

Daryl Watson

And I drift off to sleep for, like, a moment, and then suddenly I feel this warmth enter my body. And all of a sudden, I have all this energy. And I hear a voice inside of me say, you gotta get up and you need to start walking right now or you are going to freeze to death. And I got up and I started walking. And after I got that second wind and I got to a playground, there was a slide that had a little house at the top. So I was like, ah, shelter. And I climbed in, and it was metal and wet inside. But I still tried anyway, just because it was at least protecting me from the wind.

Elna Baker

And it looked like a tiny house.

Daryl Watson

And it looked like a tiny house. And I start to drift off a little bit, and I felt that same voice kind of kick in and say, you got to get out of here. Leave. And sure, I had a moment where I was like, oh, is this God? Is this an angel? In the moment, I was like, whatever it is, it might have a point. I may need to get up and start walking. And maybe I can work out the psychological, theological questions later.

So I got up, and I was just walking and walking and walking, trying to make it to the next town. And at one point, a police car pulled up behind me and started flashing his lights. And I got so happy, because I thought, maybe he'll take me to jail and I'll get to sleep inside of a warm place. And the cop got out, because I was walking on the highway. And he was like, what are you doing? He's like, it's kind of late to be out for a walk, isn't it?

Elna Baker

It was in the middle of the night.

Daryl Watson

It was, like, 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. I told him what I was doing, that I was on a pilgrimage for peace. And he was like, OK, do you mind if I take a look inside your bag? I had a bag that a woman had given me, and I was using it to carry what little food I had. So I gave it to him. He looked through it. He gave it back to me. And he was like, OK, you're free to go.

And I said, do you mind if I sit in the back of your car and just get warm for a little bit? Because man, when he opened the car door, I could feel the warmth inside of the car, and I wanted to be in there so badly. And I asked him. And he had a police dog in the back that was looking at me. And he said, I don't mind, but I think he would. And he pointed to the dog.

So the cop drives off, and I walk for probably another 30 minutes. And I'm tired, I'm hungry, my feet are killing me, I'm really thirsty, I'm freezing. And I saw this billboard. And it said, it's OK to make mistakes as long as they're new ones. And I was like, hmm, I wonder if I made a mistake. And it didn't quite sink in yet, which is funny because maybe I like to think that, for someone who'd been wanting messages about what to do and what not to do, that God was like, let me give him a billboard.

Elna Baker

What is that billboard even for?

Daryl Watson

It makes me wonder now if that billboard even existed and it wasn't just a hallucination. I'm pretty sure that it existed. But who knows. Who knows, man.

Elna Baker

From the highway, Daryl could see the lights of a Best Western. He took the next exit and walked to the hotel. He got lucky. The woman working in the night shift was nice and let him sit in the lobby and warm up for a few hours. But then her manager showed up.

Daryl Watson

He's looking at me, and he doesn't know who I am. He knows I'm not a guest. He knows that I've eaten food, that I've used the bathroom. He's got his eye on me.

Elna Baker

Daryl didn't want any trouble from the manager, so he left and went across the street to a fast food place, where he sat with his usual cup of water. He thought about the original Peace Pilgrim and felt embarrassed. She'd walked 25 miles a day in three different countries for 28 years. He'd made it to Denton, Maryland, and was done in after three days.

Daryl saw that he hadn't had anywhere near enough respect for what she'd accomplished. He couldn't walk anymore, and he knew it. And with no money, no phone, no ID, he realized that he had only one option in the vicinity for getting rescued. So he went back to the Best Western and the suspicious manager.

Daryl Watson

I opened with, I have made a huge mistake. And then I just started telling him everything that had happened. I was crying. I told him, I was like, this is my shirt that I've made. It says "Peace Pilgrim" on it. And I showed him the back, which had "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace." I started in Delaware, I made it here, and I'm completely exhausted and hungry. And I don't think I can walk another step.

And he was like, well, do you need me to call Social Services or something like that? And I was like, no, I think I need to-- if I could just-- can I make a phone call?

Elna Baker

Daryl called his mother, who got him a room for the night. Over the phone, she told him, I'm glad you're safe, get some rest, take a nice hot bath. Then he called a friend, who rented a car and started driving down from New York to come get him. Upstairs in his room, Daryl noticed that all the urgency, all the questioning that had driven him for the last couple of years, it was gone.

Daryl Watson

Probably the culminating moment in all of this was probably sitting in that bathtub and just being so exhausted that I just didn't care anymore if I had the answer. It just wasn't important.

Elna Baker

He'd left New York more than a year ago. He'd been on this journey, most of it alone and suffering, and trying to figure out the meaning of life. He'd been obsessing over his dreams a year before that. And three days in the cold made him realize he was doing this to himself. He was making himself suffer. And he could stop. Which landed him in the same messy place so many of us are in, not having any answers. So we just ignore the questions and get on with our lives.

Daryl's back to writing plays now. It took him a year and a half of heavy lifting to rebuild the life he'd given up. And of all the writing that he worked so hard on and then erased, the one thing that remained was that email. An email, as we all know, lives forever.

Daryl Watson

It may have gone to some executives at Disney. I think it went to my agent at the time. I think it went to a publishing company that had published some of my plays. It went to everybody. And so it's been one of those things that helps remind me that I never want to do that ever again. So if things ever get tough, I never think to myself, well, I could always just give everything away and try to walk across the country. I know not to have that thought, because I've done that, and it didn't work for me.

Elna Baker

Yeah. Someone once said, it's OK to make mistakes as long as they're new ones.

Daryl Watson

[LAUGHS]. That should be on a billboard.

Elna Baker

It should be.

Daryl Watson

I think. It's that good.

Ira Glass

That story by Elna Baker. She's the author of a book, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. A theater company in Los Angeles is doing a reading of Daryl Watson's latest play, Unbound, in February. Coming up, Tempest in a TED Talk. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Some Like it Dot.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. The very first time that I ever met my wife-- ever, our first conversation-- she told me that at the time, she'd just started doing yoga, and she had just signed up for an adult education French class. And so I said, so you're on a real self-improvement kick, which I thought was just me listening to what she was saying and making conversation. She thought it was the most condescending possible thing I could have said at that moment. She actually went to her best friend, Debbie, afterwards and they had a whole conversation, apparently, about what an ass I was to have said that.

So I have learned that when you add the word "kick" to the phrase "self-improvement," you just make it sound ridiculous. Though truthfully, the phrase "self-improvement" is always on the verge of sounding ridiculous. Any plan to change your look or to start a new career or reinvent yourself in a new place, the clumsy first steps that you take toward any big goal are inherently awkward and stumbly.

Today on our show, for the new year, with people everywhere making resolutions, it's all about people bravely heading out on one self-improvement kick or another. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act Two, Some Like it Dot. In this act, we head to a country that tried for a while to build a perfect world, to solve all of their national problems in one swoop. The country is Honduras. Jacob Goldstein and Chana Joffe-Walt tell more.

Jacob Goldstein

We went to Honduras in the fall, about a month before their presidential primary. And it felt weirdly a lot like home. The election was everywhere, on news stories, billboards, and of course campaign ads, which were just like the ads we were hearing in the US.

Man 1

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jacob Goldstein

This candidate is focused on the future, not the past.

Man 2

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jacob Goldstein

This guy wants to put the country on the road to unity. And this last candidate, he's a family man who wants you to know that he believes not only in principles, but also in values.

Man 3

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jacob Goldstein

And like candidates all over the world, the candidates in Honduras were giving out free stuff to win votes. But here's where the Honduras election started to seem very, very different. The schwag wasn't just bumper stickers and lawn signs. Alberto Arce, a reporter with the Associated Press based in Honduras, says the presidential campaigns showed up at the morgue to give stuff away.

Alberto Arce

If you go to the morgue any day at 8:00 in the morning, you will see that there are three cars, like pick-ups, in the door with coffins. But then if you get a closer look, you will see that these cars, these pick-ups with coffins, have banners from political candidates.

Jacob Goldstein

Political candidates in Honduras are giving away coffins. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. And a lot of Hondurans can't afford coffins.

Alberto Arce

So the point is that, if you are poor, you go to the morgue and you ask one of these cars, please, can you give me a coffin for my dad or for my brother that has been killed, and they will give it. So everybody knows that they owe the favor to the politician that is giving this favor.

Jacob Goldstein

That's how you win votes in the world's murder capital, give people a way to bury their loved ones. It's just one weird, dark sign of how bad things are in Honduras. And the leaders of the country know this. Everybody knows this. And everybody knows basically what problems need to be fixed, but it's really hard to figure out where to start.

Say you want to start with the education system. The education system is terrible because teachers are always on strike. Teachers are always on strike because they don't get paid. They don't get paid because the government does a terrible job collecting taxes. Oh, and also because the government doesn't collect taxes, it can't hire a proper police force. And there's a huge backlog in the courts. And Hondurans think their cops, and for that matter, lots of other government workers, can be bought and sold. So you have corruption and chaos and violence.

How can you fix this? Where do you start? There is this one radical idea floating around. What if you could just get rid of everything and start from scratch?

Chana Joffe

In Honduras, there is one man who really owns this idea, Octavio Sanchez. He's the chief of staff to the current Honduran president. He has an office in the presidential palace. And Octavio has a habit of staring longingly out of the windows of that office. He looks so much the part of a national dreamer, it can feel fabricated. It is not.

Octavio Sanchez

There is something that I don't have here, which is a book that I published when I was 16 years old.

Chana Joffe

You published a book when you were 16?

Octavio Sanchez

Yes.

Jacob Goldstein

The book is set in the year 2050. And it's in the form of these imagined bulletins from the Honduran government about how the country solved all its problems. It's this incredibly nerdy book full of youthful idealism.

Chana Joffe

In his 20s, Octavio spent hours trying to actually figure out why are some countries rich and some countries poor. He showed us this giant spreadsheet he made with his friends.

Chana Joffe

Wow. So you looked at hundreds of countries?

Octavio Sanchez

Yes.

Jacob Goldstein

Can you just read through a little bit of the book?

Octavio Sanchez

Basically, it gives you an idea of what is the form of government of every country in the world, how that form of government impacts per capita income.

Jacob Goldstein

Shows measures of inequality, of corruption.

Jacob Goldstein

So this is the kind of thing that you put together with your friends when you're hanging out?

Octavio Sanchez

Yes. Basically I don't drink, so it was basically just sitting around to drink a Diet Coke and talk about what we could do.

Chana Joffe

What were you looking for?

Octavio Sanchez

Answers, basically, to how we can become a developed nation. There's no reason why, 50 years from now, Honduras cannot become a developed country. We were dreaming about this.

Jacob Goldstein

Octavio finally got his chance to make big changes for his country in 2002. He became an adviser to the president of Honduras.

Octavio Sanchez

I thought that we could change everything.

Chana Joffe

What was the picture that you had in mind?

Octavio Sanchez

I had a whole list of all the things that we were gonna do. And I was part of this government that was run by really honest and competent people. And it was incredibly hard to get anything done.

Jacob Goldstein

That list that Octavio had, it had about 20 big reforms on it that all had to happen to really change Honduras. But in the four-year presidential term, Octavio and his colleagues only got two of those things done. They failed at 18.

Chana Joffe

So when Octavio heard about this new big idea for huge change, to start from scratch, he thought it might be the only real solution for Honduras. The idea was this. You take one little corner of the country, and you say, right here, we're going to try an experiment-- get rid of our laws, our police force, all of it. And in this little corner, we're going to start over. Octavio first heard about the idea from a colleague who sat him down and scrawled it out on a piece of paper.

Octavio Sanchez

He drew the map of Honduras. And he used to put a period in the middle of that map.

Chana Joffe

So that's Honduras.

Octavio Sanchez

That's Honduras. And its a really tiny spot in the middle of the map.

Chana Joffe

So you just made a dot in the middle of this?

Octavio Sanchez

Yes. He kept telling her, no, it's just taking a small space, a really tiny space, and doing all the reforms there. Instead of fighting to do two, three, or four reforms during the life of a government, why don't you just do all of those reforms at once in a really small space? And that's why this idea was appealing. It's really the possibility of turning everything around.

Jacob Goldstein

For Octavio, this was it. You could deal with everything right there in the dot. Clean slate. New laws, new schools, everything. And when the rest of Honduras saw how well things were going inside the dot, you'd bring those big reforms to the rest of the country.

Chana Joffe

The only problem is, this idea is completely crazy. What government of any country looks around and says, you know what the problem is here? Us. Let's just create a new mini-government that looks nothing like us.

Jacob Goldstein

So Octavio was stuck. No one was interested in his big idea, until a famous economist from a rich country started saying, you know what would be a really good idea?

Paul Romer

We should seriously consider building hundreds of brand-new cities, pick a totally uninhabited site and to say, we're going to create another alternative.

Jacob Goldstein

This is Paul Romer. He's another big thinker in a very different country, the United States. But he basically came to the same conclusion as Octavio. Poor countries need a clean slate. Paul didn't call it a dot. He called it a charter city, kind of like a charter school, which gets to make its own rules and doesn't have to do what every other school in town is doing. And in Paul's model, a poor country would actually invite a rich country-- a Canada, say, or a Norway-- to come in with new laws, new courts, and help run the charter city.

Chana Joffe

So where Octavio's problem was that nobody took his idea seriously, Paul didn't have that problem. He's one of the most famous economists working today. People take him very seriously. And many people were seriously offended by his latest idea.

Angus Deaton

It didn't go over very well with me.

Chana Joffe

This is Angus Deaton. He's an economist at Princeton.

Angus Deaton

I mean, I remember being surprised. I mean, he was advocating a reintroduction of colonialism. So I don't approve of it. I think it's a terrible idea.

Chana Joffe

Colonialism. You have this rich country coming in and bringing its rules into a poor country, sounds like the definition of colonialism

Jacob Goldstein

Paul insists it is not colonialism if a poor country is asking for help, if a poor country is inviting a rich country to come in and help set up a new city. But Paul was having a hard time finding a poor country to sign up for this.

Chana Joffe

Paul Romer may be known as a brilliant thinker, but he's not much of a salesman. For this to work, he needed to appeal to people's idealism and sense of hope, which is hard for Paul. It's just not in his nature. He told us, I'm a guy who has a hard time understanding these things called "emotions" people seem to experience.

Paul Romer

I've been accused of being like Spock in Star Trek.

Chana Joffe

Paul Romer has devoted his life to making charter cities happen. He spent years flying around the world, talking to any finance minister or college kid who would listen. He was sure he just needed to let more people know he had a solution to global poverty. He just needed a way to package his charter cities idea, make it sound, OK, a little out there, but also maybe brilliant.

Paul Romer

I decided that we needed to read conceptualize how we thought about economic development.

[APPLAUSE]

Chana Joffe

And so Paul turned to the place our culture looks to hear world-changing ideas in easy-to-digest, Facebook-friendly 18-minute packages, TED talks. If you've never seen a TED talk, they're these public lectures you can watch on YouTube. Paul nailed it. It is everything a TED talk aspires to-- there are emotional hooks, there are graphs, there's data bouncing across the screen, jokes, there's an African child named Nelson studying under streetlights because his inept government can't get its act together to provide electricity. And by the end of the talk, Paul Romer has outlined an answer to the problems of the developing world. With the help of the TED producers, it sounds nothing like colonialism.

Paul Romer

Then we can keep moving progress forward and truly make the world a better place, so that people like Nelson and his friends don't have to study any longer under the streetlights. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Jacob Goldstein

Paul told us he hoped this talk would be like a message in a bottle. It worked. In 2010, the message washed up in the Honduran presidential palace in the office of Octavio Sanchez. The guy who wrote that nerdy novel when he was 16 years old was now chief of staff to the president. And when he saw the video, he knew Paul Romer was the key to making his idea happen in Honduras, a fancy world-renowned intellectual who would say to Octavio's fellow citizens, this is a good idea. And Hondurans, Octavio thought, would listen to this guy.

Chana Joffe

So just a few months after he saw the TED talk, Octavio managed to get Paul Romer and the president of Honduras together in a conference room in Miami. Paul made his economic case for the charter city, laid out all his graphs and data, but people in the room didn't seem that excited.

Paul Romer

I was explaining kind of the details about how you could finance the city and the revenue stream for the government, and so forth. And then somebody said to me, Paul, why don't you just show your TED talk?

Chana Joffe

Because you were being too much of your Spock self?

Paul Romer

Yeah. And so I sat down in the audience and then watched the TED talk with everybody else.

Chana Joffe

Watched yourself give a TED talk.

Paul Romer

Yeah. And so I remember this woman who had just a little bit of a tear in her eye after she had watched this, and felt like this might actually make a difference in our country, this might work.

Jacob Goldstein

The president of Honduras told Paul that in order to do this, in order to completely erase Honduran law in one little corner of the country, we would have to change our constitution. So let's do it. Let's do it next month.

Paul Romer

The Hondurans moved much more quickly than I expected. And so it was a little bit of a challenge, just racing to keep up with them. I thought it might be 10 years before some government would actually do something like pass a constitutional amendment or--

Chana Joffe

And here's the president of a country saying, we want to do it next month.

Paul Romer

Yeah.

Chana Joffe

Honduras was about to create a brand-new city.

Jacob Goldstein

Remember that spot that's just a dot on a map? A few months ago, we went there. It's not far from the Caribbean. It's very pretty and lush, palm trees. We were there with a guy named Carlos Pineda. He's a Honduran official who's trying to make this city happen. Although standing there, what we were looking at was the opposite of a city.

Carlos Pineda

It's just a valley with huge expansions of land, scattered trees, and a lot of green.

Chana Joffe

To the Hondurans, it seemed surprisingly easy. As soon as they connected with Paul Romer, things moved really fast. The Honduran Congress changed the constitution. And now here's an actual piece of land. Paul transformed what was some weird local idea into the next big thing in global development. It was exciting.

Jacob Goldstein

Just getting to the dot, we could see the problems these guys are trying to solve. There's so much violent crime in the area that we were told to hire private security just to drive here. And we passed factories where people who are lucky enough to have jobs at all work at low-wage jobs, like sewing together fabric for t-shirts.

Chana Joffe

But Carlos says this city is going to change all of that. He says, just imagine.

Carlos Pineda

I'm seeing a lot of people, particularly young people with children, parks, lots of trees. And I see office buildings and condos and beach condos and hotels and coffee shops and restaurants. And roads, lots of roads.

Jacob Goldstein

All this will happen, Carlos says, because this city is going to have totally different rules than the rest of Honduras. It's not just going to be another free trade zone or a place with some special labor laws. The dream is to create all the institutions of civil society-- decent schools where teachers get paid and kids learn to read, honest cops, functioning courts. They might copy laws from other places. When we were there, we heard a lot of talk about Texas state law, which is apparently pro-business. They might hire retired judges from other countries-- say, the UK.

Chana Joffe

And at the beginning, the money to pay for these things would be largely from foreign companies coming in and building factories and offices in the new city. But eventually, Carlos says, the city would be full of young entrepreneurs and tech startups owned by Hondurans.

Carlos Pineda

No, I don't see a lot of suits. In my view, it has to be a fairly cool place to live.

Chana Joffe

I lived in Seattle for a while. It sounds like you're describing Seattle.

Carlos Pineda

Yeah. It sounds reasonable, yeah. Hopefully is.

Chana Joffe

Seattle and Honduras.

Carlos Pineda

Yes. Hopefully, yes, it will be something like that. I can see how it wouldn't be believable right now. But I can tell you that it can happen.

Chana Joffe

They started planning to build this new city. There was a flood of excitement, and then things started to get rocky. The dot needed a court system. And after months and months, they were still debating what exactly that should look like. The dot needed foreign investors, and the investors weren't coming in as quickly as everyone had hoped. And when the Hondurans and Paul sat down to actually try and iron out the details to work together, that, it turned out, was challenging. Carlos Pineda, the guy who took us to the dot, says Paul's attitude was hard to take. He says, we invited this guy here to help us, but he wasn't acting like a helper.

Carlos Pineda

So he wanted to have full control of everything that happened. For instance, if some foreign journalist wanted to interview me or interview Octavio, I would right away get an email saying his advice, sometimes unwanted. OK, you have to be careful. This guy comes from such magazine or so. I mean, we have an idea of how things work.

Chana Joffe

Or Paul would tell the Hondurans about how they should structure the court system in some particular way. And the Hondurans weren't so interested, but Paul would go ahead and set up meetings for them anyway.

Carlos Pineda

Keep in mind, this is a Honduran project. It's done by the Honduran government, and it was mostly designed by Hondurans.

Jacob Goldstein

But journalists from all over the world loved the story of the famous academic who got the chance to try his idea in a real live country. Octavio Sanchez had been dreaming about this idea long before he met Paul Romer. And he says the Hondurans did not expect their story to be told this way, with their country essentially reduced to serving as a Petri dish for a North American plan.

Octavio Sanchez

The only thing that got out of Honduras was how Paul Romer had convinced the Honduran government to build the charter city. I spent hours speaking with journalists, and the only thing that comes out is Romer, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, for pages, for pages, and then the small quote in the end. And the reaction from the Honduran government is the following one.

Chana Joffe

At the beginning, Octavio brought in Paul to help sell this plan in Honduras. And it worked. They sold it. But now it seemed to Octavio like Paul was poisoning the project. Accomplishing even small things became very difficult.

Octavio Sanchez

No one in the cabinet or around me wanted to help in this idea if Romer was involved. I had an empathy with him, and I was willing to defend him. And I was willing to get things done if he thought that they were useful for the project. The fact is that, what I told you, it was like I was hitting a wall. When I tried to do things with him here, at some point in time, no one was willing to help.

Jacob Goldstein

The Hondurans' complaints about Paul Romer and about the foreign press, they seem kind of petty. I mean, you're talking about fixing your whole country here. Who cares what a story in The Economist says? Who cares if Paul Romer is lacking in social graces? Suck it up. Save your country. But remember, the phrase "banana republic" was invented to describe Honduras. US-based fruit companies were hugely powerful here for a big chunk of the 20th century. At one point, one company even funded a coup to overthrow the government. Before that, there were hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism.

All of this sent a clear message to Honduras. North Americans, the whole rich world, they don't think you're up to running your own country. So all this petty stuff is just not petty in Honduras. It really matters when a story in The Economist says a Honduran idea is actually some brilliant plan imposed by a North American economist. Here's Octavio.

Octavio Sanchez

Many people all over the world don't understand that we are poor not because we are dumb. We are poor because of our institutional arrangement, not because we lack the capacity to imagine things.

Jacob Goldstein

In Honduras, public opinion turned against the plan. And a group of lawyers challenged the project in the country's supreme court.

Oscar Cruz

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jacob Goldstein

This is Oscar Cruz. He's one of those lawyers. And he says charter cities violate the country's sovereignty. They violate the fundamental rights of all Hondurans.

Oscar Cruz

[SPEAKING SPANISH] Paul Romer.

Jacob Goldstein

And he says they're being promoted by Paul Romer and some other North Americans who think they've discovered a magic formula to raise the world out of poverty.

Chana Joffe

Octavio's response to this is, yes, this new city would have many of its own laws, foreigners might be appointed as judges, but it would be run by a Honduran governor, not by some foreign country. He says the whole supreme court challenge is really just a big misunderstanding.

Jacob Goldstein

By the middle of 2012, the project is starting to stall, and Paul is part of the problem. But Octavio never says that to Paul directly.

Chana Joffe

So Paul moves ahead. He thinks he's on this commission that's supposed to oversee the new Honduran city. And he goes around the world trying to get powerful people to sign on. He even gets a Nobel Prize-winner.

Jacob Goldstein

In Honduras, meanwhile, they're dragging their feet on making this commission official. But Paul's understanding is that he should press on anyway.

Chana Joffe

And then one day last summer, Paul is in Sweden talking to IKEA about building housing for a charter city, a million apartments or something. And he reads in the news that Honduras has signed a deal with some group of investors. Paul doesn't know anything about it. He's stunned.

Paul Romer

There was an announcement in the newspapers, that we heard about in the newspapers, that the government had signed some kind of agreement with a private firm. I mean, I got email, press inquiries. This is wonderful. The thing is taking off. Your idea is taking off. And I don't know who this firm is. I don't know who's backing it. I don't know what their plan is.

Jacob Goldstein

Paul thinks that, as a member of the commission-- which, by the way, is called the Transparency Commission-- his job is to review these kind of deals, to make sure nothing shady is going on. So Paul calls Octavio, and he asks him--

Paul Romer

Can I see the agreement?

Octavio Sanchez

No, we can't show you that, because there is no legal grounds to show you that.

Paul Romer

They said that it's protected by a non-disclosure agreement and they couldn't show it to me.

Octavio Sanchez

But I'm a member of the Transparency Commission. No, you aren't. Then are you saying that I'm not? No, there's no Transparency Commission.

Paul Romer

And so I just knew at that moment.

Jacob Goldstein

It was over. They talked one more time after that. Paul told Octavio he was resigning from the commission. Octavio told Paul there was nothing for him to resign from. And the next month, the Honduran supreme court ruled the project unconstitutional. The dot was dead.

Chana Joffe

So the question is, could this big, ambitious idea actually have worked if things had been a little different in Honduras? You could definitely imagine if Paul Romer were different, if he were better with people, was a little more sensitive to politics and who gets credit, things would have gone differently. And maybe they'd be building a brand-new city in Honduras right now, at least that's what Octavio and Carlos told us.

We ran this by Paul. And by the way, it's not easy to say to someone, they just didn't like you. We told Paul it started to seem to the Hondurans like you were bossing them around and taking all the credit. Paul says if that's what this is about, that's ridiculous.

Paul Romer

If hurt feelings over those kind of things are what killed this whole project, that's just such an amazing tragedy. All this other stuff about hurt feelings and who gets credit and all that other stuff should be set aside, and all of the attention has to be focused on, what can we do that works? And what's disappointing, and I think really tragic, is that that isn't what happened here. Then as an outsider, all I can do is go find another country to go work with.

Chana Joffe

Paul told us that in the next country he finds, he'll pretty much handle himself the way he did in Honduras, which, I got to say, makes it hard to see how he'll get different results.

Jacob Goldstein

But no matter who is promoting this project, no matter how politically sensitive or savvy they are, this is always going to be a long shot. I mean, what government anywhere doesn't care about ego and who gets credit? What government is going to be willing to overturn its own laws and go up against entrenched interests? It's just hard to imagine this really working out. But Octavio, like Paul, is still optimistic. Despite everything, he still believes one of these cities is going to happen.

Octavio Sanchez

There will be a country that will adopt it. I'm more than positive that this will happen somewhere. I don't know where. And it will be a success. And when people see that happening somewhere else in the world, I think that that will be followed by many countries all over the developing world.

Chana Joffe

Octavio's best hope for that right now is probably Paul Romer. Paul is back on the road. He says he's got a lead in North Africa.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffee-Walt and Jacob Goldstein from Planet Money, which is a co-production of NPR News and our program. To get their free-- free-- podcast and their blog, with economic reporting that actually makes sense and is listenable, go to npr.org/money.

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Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Tarek Fouda. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Music help from Damien Graef, from Rob Geddis.

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Our website, where we link to our completely redesigned Android app, thisamericanlife.org. You can also get that on Google Play, and of course we have apps for iPhone and iPad. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he guest-taught a journalism class this week and told them what you need to include in any successful radio story.

Julia Lurie

Breast.

Students

A breast.

Julia Lurie

Breast.

Students

Breast.

Ira Glass

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

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