Transcript

511:

The Seven Things You're Not Supposed to Talk About
Transcript

Originally aired 11.08.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/511

Prologue.

Sarah Koenig

Can you just say who you are?

Maria Matthiessen

I'm Maria Matthiessen, Sarah's mother.

Sarah Koenig

My mother, you're my mother.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes, I'm your mother.

Sarah Koenig

You were referring to me in the third person.

Maria Matthiessen

No, I said Sarah's mother.

Sarah Koenig

Right. But I'm right here.

Maria Matthiessen

You said, who am I? Maria Matthiessen.

Sarah Koenig

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Sarah Koenig sitting in for Ira Glass, who's here, by the way. He's just going to show up a little later.

But I'm hosting the show today because this show is all about my mother, Maria Matthiessen-- Mrs. Matthiessen, to you. You can call her Maria if and when you are invited to do so. That's how she is. She has standards, strong ideas about how things should be done.

She has a lot of rules about language, for instance. You don't say couch, it's sofa. Where's my pocketbook, you say? Nope. It's a handbag. Not a hand bag, a handbag. Perhaps you didn't hear the difference there. I assure you, Mrs. Matthiessen did.

But my mother's most interesting set of rules is about conversation. About what you don't talk about. She's got an actual list of off-limits topics.

Maria Matthiessen

Never talk about how you slept. Nobody cares. Never talk about your period. Nobody cares. Don't talk about your health, either. Nobody cares. [LAUGHS] Nobody ever cares about other people's health. I mean, if it's something serious and it's a friend, obviously you want to hear about it. It's the common colds, the--

Sarah Koenig

Aches and pains.

Maria Matthiessen

Aches and pains, it's really tiresome.

Sarah Koenig

So when I call you and say, oh, I have the flu, and I'm feeling terrible, in your heart, you actually don't care about--

Maria Matthiessen

No, I care, and I say, well, I'm so terribly sorry, and oh, you poor thing. And then I forget about it, go on with my life, as most people would.

Sarah Koenig

The list is seven items long. My mother didn't invent it. She learned it from a friend, a French friend, whose French mother told it to her. But even though it's not my mom's invention, it codified the topics she already thought were unworthy of conversation. So, to review, we've got how you slept, your period, your health. What else?

Maria Matthiessen

Your dreams. Nobody cares about your dreams. And never talk about money, which Americans do all the time, including me.

Sarah Koenig

So all these things should be off the table because they're boring?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

So it's just to keep boringness out of your life, out of conversation?

Maria Matthiessen

Although talking about money is considered, in certain circles, extremely rude. Not rude, just--

Sarah Koenig

Vulgar.

Maria Matthiessen

Vulgar, not done. So the others are done, I assume. It's just a question of whether you want to bore people or not.

Sarah Koenig

I mean, are you allowed to talk about it with your family, or just not at a gathering of friends, or something?

Maria Matthiessen

I suppose so, if you want to bore your family.

Sarah Koenig

My mother takes this list pretty seriously. In fact, she is so dedicated to the eradication of dull and self-indulgent droning that she even added two topics of her own.

Maria Matthiessen

Diet is a very big thing not to talk about. It's really boring.

Sarah Koenig

That includes your weight-loss regime and your food restrictions. Gluten, vegan, dairy-free, she hates all of it. And finally my mother's number one killer of discourse, her crown jewel--

Maria Matthiessen

Route talk. Route talk is when people tell you how they arrived, or how they came, how they got on the road, which road, how long it took. That is the top of my list for what you don't talk about.

Sarah Koenig

Those who transgress, who break these rules and bore my mother, are usually forgiven. We're all boring on occasion. And my mother is the first to admit that she herself can be boring. But they're not forgotten.

The most infamous episode of route talk, for instance, was committed by a famous movie star who drove to our house on Long Island from New York City. The movie star was Robert Redford. Robert Redford was coming to our house. We were all super excited.

Maria Matthiessen

And he told us how he came from New York all the way out here. Then I got lost in Shirley. And then I asked the cop. And then he recognized me and asked me for his autograph. And the whole thing, which takes two hours from New York, took two hours for him to tell us.

Sarah Koenig

Was he dead to you after that?

Maria Matthiessen

Pretty much.

Sarah Koenig

Then there was the menstrual criminal.

Maria Matthiessen

Oh, I've got my per-- we had a guest here, once. And the whole weekend was taken up with her period.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

What do you mean?

Maria Matthiessen

Oh, it was appalling-- the cramps, and the thing, and running to the store to get equipment. And the whole weekend, that's almost all I remember about her.

Sarah Koenig

Do you think it's possible to have exceptions to all of these, say, at a dinner party, you know some story that would be worthy of a dinner party that would be about these things? Do you think there's exceptions where those could actually be good stories to hear?

Maria Matthiessen

Not really. I mean, I'm looking at the list. Route talk is just completely out of the question. Diet-- especially at dinner parties, you don't want to hear what people can't eat.

Sarah Koenig

Today on our radio show we take on my mother and her French lady list. Our mission, to prove her wrong, to delve into the most boring topics in the world and wrench from them stories of such excellence and entertainment that my mother will be forced to rethink the entire course of her conversational life. Does she think we can do it?

Maria Matthiessen

I doubt whether you can find great stories. I challenge you.

Sarah Koenig

All right, well, so, if we do it-- I'm not sure we will succeed. But if we do it, maybe I'll check in with you and play some of them for you, and see if you're--

Maria Matthiessen

Convinced.

Sarah Koenig

Convinced.

Maria Matthiessen

Fine. I'll keep sort of an open mind.

Sarah Koenig

Actually, that should be on your gravestone. Here lies Maria. She had sort of an open mind.

[LAUGHTER]

Stay with us. I hope you will too, Mom.

Act One. Period.

Sarah Koening

OK, so it's been a couple of months since we had that conversation. Mom, you're here in the studio. And during that time, in those intervening months, a bunch of us here at the radio show went out looking for exceptions to your rules, for stories that are super-interesting on these topics, OK? That you would welcome at a dinner party.

All right, so we're just gonna jump right in. The first story stars Ninon, my friend Ninon, who you know.

Maria Matthiessen

Oh, good.

Sarah Koening

Yeah. For people who don't know Ninon, she's French. Which means her mother is also French, just like the lady who originated your list, Mom. So when I told her about your rules, actually, she reacted like it was all totally normal, because it turns out her mother taught her similar rules, including one of the most sweeping and potentially paralyzing conversational rules in all of Europe, which is, she said to Ninon-- before you open your mouth first ask yourself, is this interesting to anybody? So I'm turning to her for the menstruation rule-- never talk about your period, nobody cares.

Ninon

My specialty is to have gynecological issues when I'm abroad.

Sarah Koenig

I taped Ninon in an actual dinner party. It was in August, and we were outside. And I did that because I wanted to create the very conditions under which, according to you, a story like this should not succeed.

OK, so this story happened when Ninon was 25. She was a graduate student. And she was doing research at an archive in Washington DC. And she was staying with this really nice American woman who she'd met back in France who'd kindly offered her a place to stay.

Ninon

And so I was staying at her house, and I was still in the phase where you're not completely comfortable. She was so kind, you know? She was like, you can stay any length of time. And I didn't have to pay any rent.

Sarah Koenig

OK, now for Ninon's so-called specialty. She discovers that she has some sort of gynecological cyst, which she has to get removed. It's a small surgery. And so now is when I admit to you that this story isn't strictly about menstruation. But I'm going to beg your indulgence. I'm going to beg your indulgence.

Maria Matthiessen

That's cheating, I say.

Sarah Koenig

But just suspend that judgment for second, because I promise you, it has every hallmark of a menstruation story, as you're going to find out. OK, so anyway-- just hold on-- so Ninon needs this little operation.

Ninon

And then I went to the hospital for a day and came back. And so this operation involved my heavily, heavily, heavily, uh, blooding?

Sarah Koenig

Bleeding.

Ninon

Bleeding. And so I had to wear these giant pads, which I'd never seen the size of in the first place.

[LAUGHTER]

Ninon

It was basically like being in diapers. They were so huge, which was already very uncomfortable. So I had to be nice to this woman.

Sarah Koenig

So she obviously knew what had happened.

Ninon

I was very vague on the details. I didn't really say anything.

Sarah Koenig

So a couple of days after the operation, her host, this nice woman, tells Ninon she's having a little dinner party at her house for 8 or 10 friends, and would Ninon like to join in. And so Ninon says, sure. And so that night she goes downstairs to the party.

Ninon

So, you know, I had made sure that I was perfectly fine. I had gone to the bathroom, changed my diaper, was wearing some conveniently large gown that wasn't too tight. And so I was perfectly comfortable, and making chit-chat. And suddenly I caught, from the corner of my eye, something that I could not quite process at first, which was one of those giant pads, but filled with blood, like to the brim, under the buffet table, in plain sight, for everyone to see.

And I was talking to this complete stranger who was, like, he had a huge ZZ Top beard. And it was really like a double-take. This is not true, this is me being very insecure about bleeding. So it was quite plain, in view, under the table.

And I seemed to be the only one who had noticed. I don't know. I panicked. I thought, OK, what's going? Immediately, the first thing is, I need to get rid of that diaper. I need to pick it up, I need to seize it and dispose of it.

So I made my way to that table while talking with him. I remember very well the DC subway that he had somehow participated in making. And I had planned in my head, while he was talking, that I would just drop something and pick up this giant pad and just leave.

Sarah Koenig

So wait, what'd you do? What'd you do? What happened?

Ninon

So I went near that table. But before I got there--

Sarah Koenig

There is only one way this story gets worse for Ninon.

Maria Matthiessen

Dog.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

Yes. You're right.

Ninon

And then, at some point, the dog was let in.

Sarah Koenig

A Labrador. A yellow lab. Let's say it again.

Ninon

The dog was let in. And I thought, my god, the dog is going to--

Sarah Koenig

That's right, he is going to.

Ninon

And sure enough, he didn't have the same sort of subtle approach as I did. And the dog--

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

OK, so, when I first played this story for my colleagues here, they all said it was too disgusting, what happens next.

Maria Matthiessen

It is.

Sarah Koenig

OK. So I'm just gonna tell you. So anyway, the dog does exactly what you think the dog's gonna do. It sees blood. It tears into the giant pad. And it's a yellow lab, so it's all showing on it's snout, the aftermath of this.

Ninon

At some point, I did go to the dog and wrench it off the dog and fold it and put it away. And the woman did come to me in the kitchen. And she said, I'm so sorry.

Sarah Koenig

Because she knew. She knew you--

Ninon

She knew. She'd noticed the whole thing. And she figured out that the dog-- in fact, she explained to me, because I couldn't figure out how it was possible that this thing had landed under the buffet table. That was the thing that was missing for me. But it's her dog, in fact, who had--

Sarah Koenig

Taken it.

Ninon

Yeah. She said nobody had noticed, which I found very hard to believe. But nobody showed that they had noticed. They were kind enough to just ignore it, as though it hadn't happened. It was like being in a nightmare. You know, it felt unreal. It felt completely unreal. Total humiliation.

Sarah Koenig

Right? Total humiliation. That is the hallmark of a good menstruation story.

Maria Matthiessen

Poor Ninon.

Sarah Koenig

I know. OK, OK. We're going to score these on whether we have succeeded in finding exceptions to your rules, basically whether we've proved that these can be good topics of conversation. But hold your thoughts right now on Ninon's story, because I'm going to go to the second story now.

Act Two. Diet.

Sarah Koening

And just to explain, for this show, my fellow producers all did stories. And for the next one, we need Ira. Hi, Ira.

Ira Glass

Hey there. Um, so Mrs. Matthiessen-- so I call you Mrs. Matthiessen, right?

Maria Matthiessen

Whichever. You may call me Maria.

Ira Glass

Oh, well thank you. Yeah. I heard the beginning of the show, there. I needed your permission, and now I have it. So Maria, I was sent out to find a story about diet that would be interesting for you. Oh, you are literally rolling your eyes at me, I just want to say to the radio audience.

And to find one I turned to this guy named Steven Bratman. And he has spent a lot of time around people with extreme and unusual diets. So for starters, in the 1970s, he worked on this organic food commune in upstate New York, where the kitchen had to prepare meals for people with wildly different, deeply-held beliefs about food.

Steven Bratman

I remember that there was a group of people that we called the rabbits, because they were sitting at one table, and their plates were just piled high with mostly lettuce, maybe garnished with some onions and carrots, or something. But the macrobiotic table was everybody had brown rice. And the purer you were, the less you had in addition to brown rice.

Ira Glass

So there were regular vegetarians, and there were vegans, and there were people who didn't eat nightshade plants, like potatoes or tomatoes. There was a whole non-onion, non-garlic, Hindu-influenced crowd. And there were meat-eaters. And these were all at different tables.

Steven Bratman

Arguments would just break out between the tables. No actual fights, because everyone was expecting the meat-eaters to be the aggressive ones. Actually, the raw-foodists were the most aggressive ones. But the meat-eaters were much bigger.

Ira Glass

As the years passed, he became a doctor and a writer. He practiced alternative medicine. And he encountered and treated people who would arrive in his office doing things like-- there was a woman who decided that yellow foods were best for her body, and that's what she tried to eat. He had another patient who had shrunk to 95 pounds because her entire diet was Jerusalem artichoke pasta, canola oil, and watermelon. One woman was faint and weak all the time because she was getting very few calories and almost no protein from her diet.

Steven Bratman

Her consciousness wasn't very clear. She was a little bit delirious from being in a state of starvation, until eventually she became so weak and so mentally confused that she was riding her bicycle to work and what appears to have happened is she just drove out into traffic. She just rode out into traffic and was hit by a car and was killed.

Ira Glass

And you think that's a result of her confused mental state from the starvation?

Steven Bratman

She was starving, not very lucid.

Ira Glass

This was not anorexia. In anorexia, you eat less hoping that you're going to lose weight. Dr. Bratman says that these patients didn't really care about losing weight. Their diet was about making themselves more pure.

So the woman on the bike said that when she would eat cashews or brown rice or food with protein in it, she felt like she had done something wrong. It felt sinful to her. And he found that arguing basic science and nutrition with a lot of these patients felt like arguing with somebody who had strong religious beliefs. They believed what they believed, where he felt like there was nothing he could say to convince his patients that their diets were hurting them. And so to get through to them, he invented a name.

Steven Bratman

If I had a disease name for it, I could say no, you have a disease. You have orthorexia.

Ira Glass

He became, actually, kind of famous for coining this term and wrote a pretty good book about it called Health Food Junkies. The press is still constantly, years later, hounding him to talk about this subject. But does he actually like to talk about diet?

Steven Bratman

Talking about diet is a fantastic interest to people who are obsessed with diet, of course. And that's a lot of people. And to their fellow hobbyists, of course this is very interesting.

Ira Glass

But to you?

Steven Bratman

Um, to me, no.

Ira Glass

In fact, he hates it. And he was in northern California, in the Bay Area, where I guess people are constantly telling you about how they have switched to this or that diet and how wonderful it is. And he avoids this at all costs. When he meets people and they find out what he's done-- he's written a book, and he's an expert on this-- he tries to shut down that conversation as fast as he can.

Which is to say, he has spent years of his life, of his career, thinking about diet. And Maria, he is just like you. He thinks it's boring to talk about. And I bring all this up to say, have we achieved the goal? Have we found an actual interesting story about diet? And haven't we proven to you that you can have an interesting story that's about diet?

Maria Matthiessen

Well, Mom? Have we found an interesting story about diet?

Sarah Koenig

Well, yes, because he's an expert. And almost anybody who's an expert on something can be interesting.

Ira Glass

I'll quibble with you there, as somebody who's interviewed many experts. But your bigger point stands. Yeah, OK.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

OK, so I'm going to keep a tally here. We're going to have two columns. And if we found a story that's interesting on these supposedly boring topics, we win a point. If we fail to do that, you win a point. So for this one, I'm going to say This American Life wins that round. Now, can we just go back to Ninon's story, the period story?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes, yes.

Sarah Koenig

How do you score that?

Maria Matthiessen

Well, of course, she made it interesting. If Ninon told it, everybody would be riveted. Is it something I want to hear at a dinner? Possibly not.

Sarah Koenig

So half a point? Should we split it?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

OK. So that's one and a half points for This American Life and half a point for Maria Matthiessen.

Act Three. Health.

Sarah Koening

All right, moving on. Next up is health. Aches and pains. So my colleague Brian Reed was assigned this one. Hi, Brian.

Brian Reed

Hi, Mrs. Matthiessen.

Maria Matthiessen

Hello.

Sarah Koenig

All right. And Brian searched to prove that aches and pains can make for compelling conversation. He discovered a couple who clash on this very point. So the husband is on your side. He does not like it when people talk about their health, especially at the dinner table, where a lot of this story takes place, as you're gonna hear. The guy's wife, on the other hand-- well, Brian, you tell.

Brian Reed

So Mrs. Matthiessen, when Gary Edelstone was growing up, family dinner parties were proper affairs-- fine China, silver serving bowls, neatly folded napkins. Let's just say these evenings, dinner conversation included, were conducted with a certain decorum.

Gary longs for those meals, because at the dinner parties he's attended for the last 23 years-- the dinners he has every month or so with his in-laws, his wife Deborah Lott's family-- for one thing, people don't even sit down and start eating at the same time. Here are Gary and Deborah.

Gary Edelstone

Then, when everyone has gathered around, that's when the conversation will usually turn to medical symptoms.

Brian Reed

Just out of the blue?

Gary Edelstone

There's usually some cue.

Deborah Lott

The cue is having a body. You know, having a body at the table is enough of a cue.

Bob

The cardiologist said I have a young heart.

Karen

Good.

Bob

And low blood pressure.

Karen

Good.

Brian Reed

Deborah, it turns out, comes from a family that obsesses over health. And when they all get together, she and her brothers, Bob and Allan, and Allan's wife Karen, their banter goes on overdrive. So Deborah and Gary were kind enough to record the last dinner party they hosted. They just put a couple of iPads on the table with the mics running. And they assure me that this is a typical dinner for them. But it's anything but typical.

So Mrs. Matthiessen, it is my pleasure to be able to serve you the five course meal that you thought you never wanted, a gourmet tour of affliction and malady, with a family of disease connoisseurs. Ready?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Brian Reed

All right. So for starters, some amuse-bouche-- I hope I'm saying that right. Deborah asked her brother Bob why, if his doctor says he has such a young heart, he complains that it pounds so heavily when he climbs the stairs.

Bob

He doesn't know why. He thought it might be a magnesium deficiency.

Karen

You want some magnesium?

Bob

Can I take it?

Gary

Here we go.

[LAUGHTER]

Brian Reed

That's Gary you can hear there, already getting irritated. And we haven't even gotten to the appetizer yet.

Bob

So Deborah, have you had your semi-annual brain scan?

Deborah Lott

No, but--

Gary

We all want to know.

Deborah Lott

--I do have floaters, right here.

Karen

Your eye?

Deborah Lott

Yeah. So when they go from a dark room to a light room, I have a light show right here. So I went to the ophthalmologist and he said that the vitreous is drying up, like this, and separating from the-- what?

Karen

Oh my god.

Deborah Lott

Well, no, he says it's normal aging.

Karen

Do they ever put oxygen in your eyes? OK. Well, that's when I had my hole in the back of the eye.

Bob

Well, that's not for floaters.

Karen

Well, I had a floater. It was a piece of oxygen that floated around for years.

Allan

So were you having hemorrhaging?

Karen

Huh?

Allan

Were you having hemorrhaging?

Deborah Lott

There was blood in the eye.

Allan

Cindy had that, where she hemorrhaged.

Brian Reed

How you doing over here, Mrs. Matthiessen?

Maria Matthiessen

Well, [LAUGHS] I think this maybe one for me, rather than This American Life.

Brian Reed

Let's not get there too fast. You ready for the fish course?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Deborah Lott

What did you get from those clams?

Bob

Just had a little indigestion.

Deborah Lott

Oh, Jesus.

Bob

Clams?

Deborah Lott

You were so sick.

Bob

Well, clams can get you sick.

Karen

I once got really sick from mussels. I mean, I had to stay away from shrimp.

Brian Reed

It was relentless. There was repartee about magnesium and potassium and blood pressure and bacteria and gluten and nitroglycerin and nitrates and Demano sugar and quinine and the flu shot and probiotics and vitamin B and the various effects each of these things might have on one's body. There were tales of muscle spasms, lungs full of fluid, insulin attacks, skin issues.

Bob

She was a very nice person, but she sheds.

Karen

Everybody sheds.

Brian Reed

There were also natural segues into some of the other outlawed topics, like how people were sleeping at night due to leg cramps, for instance. Or, this was a big one, diet. There were debates. Should you drink caffeine if you have atrial fibrilation? Could eating too many hot dogs give you stomach cancer? Is salt good for you, or bad for you? How about quinoa?

Karen

Oh, quinoa, that's a good product, if you can handle it.

Brian Reed

At one point, somebody started talking about his hot flashes. You heard me right, his hot flashes. And suddenly Deborah began having one herself.

Deborah Lott

I wasn't having them until he said it. And now I'm having one.

Brian Reed

But perhaps most telling were statements like this.

Allan

They got a new blood thinner, but I'm not gonna try it.

Bob

Why?

Allan

Because the one I'm using works.

Brian Reed

Did you notice how Allan had no actual news to report? He had no problem to complain about. His blood thinner's working just fine. But he couldn't help himself.

Deborah Lott

It's like sports. It's like people talk about baseball scores, or they talk about golf. People in my family talk about diseases and they talk about doctors. It's the culture of my family.

Brian Reed

What do you remember about how this began in your family?

Deborah Lott

My father was kind of the king of hypochondriacs.

Brian Reed

And it was her father, Deborah says, who passed on the obsession with health to her family. By the time he was 25, he'd already gotten several full-body work-ups at places like the Mayo Clinic because he was convinced there was something wrong with his rib or his breathing or his digestive system.

He was terrified of germs. He wouldn't eat anything that his hands had touched. As a kid, Deborah says, if you stubbed your toe, he would inspect it with a magnifying glass, then douse it in a red antiseptic called merthiolate, and then have a long discussion about whether or not you should get a tetanus shot.

Deborah Lott

And I mean, we had a lot of rituals about food preparation. He was always concerned that there'd be botulism in the canned food, so we'd open the cans in a ritualized way. He would go to the cupboard and take out the can and wash it thoroughly, then examine it to make sure that none of this seams were in any way compromised.

And then we would all lean over the can while he opened it to hear it puff. Puffing meant that it was airtight. And it would be this big moment to hear whether the can puffed and whether we would live if we ate what was in it.

And he would do it with a certain sense of humor. He knew that it was kind of nutty. Or he would say, boy, this is neurotic behavior. Isn't this neurotic behavior?

Brian Reed

But he would never fail to do that, to check the cans.

Deborah Lott

No. No, no, no.

Brian Reed

It's remarkable that Deborah is able to talk so easily about all this, because eventually her father went beyond compulsive. He became psychotic. For the last 15 years or so of his life, he suffered from full-blown delusions about his health and his doctors. Deborah says he took to his bed and never really got up again.

And Deborah's mom encouraged the health talk, too. Deborah says her mom was very emotionally reserved, so the way the kids found to get her attention was to declare a good symptom.

Deborah Lott

I mean, that's how she and my father communicated. He'd have a symptom, and she would fuss over him. So I think that from a very early age we learned that that's how you get love, that's how you talk about love.

Brian Reed

So please, bear that in mind as we now bring out the main course for the evening. No matter how uncouth it may seem, or squeamish it may make you, remember, they're talking about love.

Allan

I went and had my ears cleaned.

All

Oh, god.

[LAUGHTER]

Allan

Yes. Six months. 100% impaction on the left, 80% on the right.

Karen

That's what happens if you let things go. They fall apart.

Brian Reed

And here, after Allen informs everyone that his stomach has been really sensitive lately.

Bob

Your large intestine-- you had a colonoscopy?

Brian Reed

For dessert, Allan told everyone about a guy he heard on the radio talking about all the terrifying spots in restaurants where traces of fecal matter have been found.

Gary Edelstone

Oh my god, your family.

[LAUGHTER]

Brian Reed

Gary, have you ever just had to get up and leave the table?

Gary Edelstone

Absolutely. Very often I just get disgusted with it and walk out. They don't seem to notice, though.

Brian Reed

So the question is, was I successful? Is Deborah's family proof that it's possible to talk about your health without being boring?

Maria Matthiessen

No. It would be unimaginable in my life.

Brian Reed

Well, I actually wasn't asking you that question. I was asking them.

Maria Matthiessen

Oh.

Deborah Lott

Well, it doesn't bore me, because I guess I'm kind of libidinally invested in it. And the way my family does it is so vivid and grotesque that I'm not bored. It's kind of like a horror movie. Was it boring, Gary? Do you find my family boring?

Gary Edelstone

It's unpleasant. It's unappetizing. But I do see that they are relating to each other with it. This is how they bond with each other. But no, they're not boring.

Brian Reed

If Gary can give them that much, Mrs. Matthiessen, surely you can, too.

Maria Matthiessen

Not really.

Brian Reed

Oh, come on.

Maria Matthiessen

No. I'm with the poor husband. I would walk out. I think it's one for me.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Maria Matthiessen

I do. I think you did your story wonderfully successfully, but I thought it had a few longueurs.

Sarah Koenig

What's a longueur?

Brian Reed

Pardon me?

[LAUGHTER]

Maria Matthiessen

No, where it dips into boringness.

Brian Reed

That's the longueur?

Sarah Koenig

That's the longueur.

Brian Reed

OK.

Sarah Koenig

All right. So that means the score is now tied, actually. One and a half points for This American Life, one and a half points for you.

Maria Matthiessen

OK.

Sarah Koenig

Deborah Lott's a writer, by the way, and she just completed a memoir about all this stuff called Tell Me I'm Still Breathing. Coming up-- oh, Mom, can you do this part?

Maria Matthiessen

Coming up, we find out if my daughter's colleagues know better than I do about what's interesting and what's boring.

Sarah Koenig

That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

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Sarah Koenig

It's This American Life. I'm Sarah Koenig, sitting in for Ira Glass. Today's show, "The Seven Things You're Not Supposed to Talk About," according to my mother, who is sitting right here with me. Hi, Mom.

Maria Matthiessen

Hello, Sarah.

Sarah Koenig

And so we're taking you on, Mom, and your list of supposedly boring topics. For this show we went out and found stories on all of these topics, except for one. We didn't do money. And we didn't do money because you said it's on your list not because it's boring, but because it's tacky. It's crass. Plus, you say you do it all the time. So we skipped that one.

But for all the others, we went out and found stories that we hope will prove to you that these topics can be interesting. You be the judge.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes, I will be.

Sarah Koenig

As you always are. All right, we've come to the second half of our show. The score, one and a half for us, This American Life, one and a half for team Maria.

Maria Matthiessen

OK.

Act Four. Sleep.

Sarah Koenig

OK. Next up on your list, sleep, as in, you don't think people should be talking about how they slept the night before anything.

Maria Matthiessen

That's right.

Sarah Koenig

So we found a story about how someone slept that we think is not boring. You're going to hear from Dr. Cady Coleman. She's an astronaut for NASA. And she has spent more than 4,300 hours in space, including a mission in 2011 where she lived aboard the International Space Station for more than five months. Five months she was up there. Our senior producer, Julie Snyder, talked to Dr. Coleman about what it's like to sleep in space.

Cady Coleman

For me it was just delightful because it was so clear. There just weren't any forces anywhere. You can't feel the weight of yourself, whether it's on your side or on your back or on your stomach. You don't feel like you are anywhere.

And we each have a little cabin. It's the size of a phone booth. It has a door, like a panel door that just folds in and out. And that's big enough certainly for you and a computer and what we call a sleeping bag. And it's not a think sleeping bag, just a little bag that you can slither into and you can zip up. And it has armholes.

And you can also clip that-- it's got hooks on it. You can clip it to the wall so that you don't go anywhere. Or, in my case, I liked to actually tuck my legs up inside and then zip it up. So that actually kept my legs tucked up, sort of sleeping in that kind of curled up position.

Julie Snyder

Oh, so you're, like, in the fetal position, but you're not having to use--

Cady Coleman

Any muscles or anything. And so I would do that. And I would sometimes just unclip my sleeping bag, just because I really liked that feeling of kind of floating, kind of tumbling, waking up in the morning and having to figure out, oh, I guess that's the bottom of the thing that holds the computer. I must be upside-down.

Things that are different up there about falling asleep are people down here are always thinking, OK, I want this pillow or that pillow. I like a soft one. I sleep this way, I sleep that way. And because we don't have gravity, it means we cannot rest our head on the pillow.

And some people really miss that. But we have found a way around it. And there are some people that basically strap a pillow to their head so it feels like their head is on a pillow.

[LAUGHS]

Julie Snyder

What if you're a drooler when you're sleeping?

Cady Coleman

I don't think you're gonna drool.

Julie Snyder

Really? Why not?

Cady Coleman

Well, you know, drooling is this pooling of saliva, right? And then it spills out because of gravity. You know, you turn on your side, and it's sort of spilling out. It's not really going to be even pooling, because now that I think about it, pooling is a gravity function.

Sarah Koenig

Dr. Cady Coleman.

Act Five. Dreams.

Sarah Koening

So that one was about how you slept, or how she slept in space. This next one is about dreams. Right? So you think people shouldn't be talking about their dreams to other people.

Maria Matthiessen

I do think that.

Sarah Koenig

Right. All right. I'm going to remind you that a couple of weeks ago I took you to an apartment on East 36th Street in New York City. Remember?

Maria Matthiessen

I remember vividly.

Sarah Koenig

OK. Here's the tape.

Sarah Koenig

How are you feeling right now?

Maria Matthiessen

Apprehensive, to say the least.

Sarah Koenig

You might be called upon to share.

Maria Matthiessen

Well, I ain't doing it.

Sarah Koenig

We were going to a dream club, a group of people who meet twice a month to talk about their dreams. Your idea of hell, basically. Here's what you said at the time.

Maria Matthiessen

As a hobby every two weeks seems unbearable.

Sarah Koenig

We took the elevator to the sixth floor.

[KNOCKING]

Man

Hi. Come on in.

Sarah Koenig

Hi, hi. Hi, I'm Sarah. This is my mother, Maria Matthiessen.

It was this small, close apartment. We sat in this small circle in the living room. And it was dark in there, remember?

Maria Matthiessen

I do remember.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. One lamp or so lit. There were boxes piled up. Books everywhere-- art books, psychology books, books about Egypt. It was very, very quiet. That day's group was four people. One guy was sick, remember, in the bedroom. And then they started. They each told one dream.

Hugo

I'm in a projection room that is a complete mess.

Woman

The carpet and the sticks of butter and the bird and my cat Charlotte.

Man

And he stands up with the chest pains, and then he collapses on the ground.

Sarah Koenig

The way I'm playing you this tape now of these dreams in these fragments, that is because that's how I was hearing them at the time. I could not, for the life of me, focus on what people were saying. And I want to be clear, it had nothing to do with those people, who were really nice, smart people, right?

It's just that this is what happens to me when anyone tells me their dreams. And you were bored, too. I know the signs.

Maria Matthiessen

Well, of course.

Sarah Koenig

Because at one point there was this rotary fan on the table, do you remember? And you picked up the cord of the fan, and you began coiling it. I knew you were gonna do it. You started coiling it up, and then you placed it gently on the table. You were trying to pass the time, respectfully. Back to their dreams.

Woman

And it flies out of my hands again, under the tree. But Charlotte is there. She's eating a bird.

Hugo

I have the feeling that I have to run a picture show, soon. And I ask myself, what time is it?

Sarah Koenig

And this is exactly your objection to dream talk, right, which is that dreams are all about the feelings they evoke in the dreamer.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

Right. Which is very hard to convey after the fact. So what you're left with in the retelling is essentially, as you say, fiction.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

Bad fiction, hard-to-follow fiction.

Man

My mother stands up, getting hysterical, and says, now where am I going to spend the night?

Sarah Koenig

But then came the more lively part of the dream club, when they analyzed the dreams. They don't really like to call analysis, but that's pretty much what they were doing. So let's take Hugo's dream. Hugo was the newest member of the group. He was a retired projectionist, or as he was saying, motion picture projectionist. His dream consisted of four scenes. And I heard him tell it at the time. I taped it, I listened to the tape many times. I still could not tell you what all the scenes were. But I do remember that the final scene had horses in it.

Hugo

A herd of white stallions-- are they horses or are they aquatic creatures, I don't know-- are rising up from the depths. I sense that they are baring their teeth menacingly. And that's the end of the dream.

Sarah Koenig

So Hugo was disturbed by these horses. Remember? And he told us that's why he'd been coming to the dream club, in fact, that he had been struggling lately with these images he was having in his dreams. And he was trying to make sense of them because he thought he might be trying to tell himself something, but he couldn't figure out what it was.

Hugo

What these horses mean, rising out of this pool. That's what I can't-- I don't have any idea.

Man

What's your experience with horses?

Hugo

Very, very little. I've hardly ever been around them.

Man

I keep thinking, straight from the horse's mouth. It could be a message that feels threatening, coming from the deep.

Woman

It's kind of a warning that it's coming, it's really going to just come right out of the water at me, or come right out of my unconscious or subconscious and bite me. You know, it's a horse.

Hugo

If only there could have been a scene five to clear it all up. But there wasn't.

Sarah Koenig

So just hearing their dreams, I was not into that at all. But interpreting them all together-- by the end, I was into it. I couldn't help it. It was like solving a riddle.

Woman

The bird is this thing to protect. You have to take care of it, and it's super fragile.

Sarah Koenig

So eventually I explained to them why we'd crashed their dream club. And we came clean about your prohibition on dream talk, that you think dreams are only really interesting to the dreamer.

Hugo

So we're a learning experience for your mother in your view. I see.

Woman

Or maybe we were all validating her previous--

[LAUGHTER]

Maria Matthiessen

It remains to be seen.

Sarah Koenig

That one guy, who was a psychoanalyst, he argued that, sure, dreams are boring to other people, unless you do what this group does, make it a communal thing. And then it becomes a whole different animal. It becomes a shared experience rather than a lonely, alienating one. And you told him you bought that.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes, I would agree with that. I think it was interesting to hear you interpret. So I don't find this boring. I think it's very interesting to--

Man

I mean, only sports and sex are intrinsically interesting.

Sarah Koenig

Just say that again. Only--

Man

Sports and sex.

Sarah Koenig

So? Is that a victory? Well, we debriefed in the lobby, right? And you said you really did find the analysis interesting. You weren't just being polite up there. But then you kind of took that back. Here's what you said in the lobby.

Maria Matthiessen

In a sense, I rest my case. The dreams themselves were incredibly boring, unbearable if you had to listen to that over your breakfast table. It was the analysis that brought them life. But it doesn't change my opinion of talking about dreams in a general thing, unless you want to sit for two hours and analyze them.

Sarah Koenig

Maria Matthiessen, one. This American Life, zero.

OK, Mom. So is that still your feeling about the dream club? Do you stand by that?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

All right. So if we add that point to the real tally, that makes it Maria Matthiessen 2.5, This American Life 1.5. And how about the one before, about how you slept? Dr. Cady Coleman, the astronaut?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes, well, I think This American Life won that one. But I think it's really cheating. Because anybody who can go and get an astronaut to talk about how they sleep is not a level playing field in any way. And if I had a general dinner, as we're talking about, and I had all these fascinating people who were able to tell these amazing stories, that would be another matter. But who has an astronaut that they can put their finger on?

Sarah Koenig

You sound so annoyed.

Maria Matthiessen

I am. [LAUGHS] I don't think it's fair.

Sarah Koenig

But remember, when I interviewed you months ago about this list, and I said, OK, so we're going to go out and find stories on these topics. And you said, I doubt whether you can find interesting stories on these topics.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes. I mean, I had no idea of your resources.

Sarah Koenig

But aren't you pleasantly surprised? Wouldn't you rather be hearing an hour of entertainment than an hour of--

Maria Matthiessen

I certainly would.

Sarah Koenig

I mean, if you were winning this, then it would be really boring.

Maria Matthiessen

But it doesn't convince me that I'm wrong in my original supposition that when ordinary people in an ordinary situation talk about these things, it's really boring.

Sarah Koenig

And I agree with you 100%.

Maria Matthiessen

Well, I'm glad. But I also think that it's old-fashioned stuff, and I can't imagine that the grandchildren will care one whit about any of this.

Sarah Koenig

But no one wants to be boring.

Maria Matthiessen

Nobody knows they're boring.

Sarah Koening

But they can learn. And I feel like you're here to teach us.

Maria Matthiessen

What an awful assignment. Mrs. McGregor.

Sarah Koenig

The killer of the fun.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes. The spoiler of the fun.

Act Six. Route Talk.

Sarah Koenig

OK. We're going to move on to our final story, Mom. And I think you can guess what it is. Can you guess what it is?

Maria Matthiessen

I can. Route talk, which was on top of my list.

Sarah Koenig

That is the top of your list, the number one thing you think should not be discussed. How you got on the road, how you got here, which highway you took, but then you got off on exit blah, but then that was blocked, so you had to take the detour-- right? That's the one.

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

OK. The very brave Nancy Updike took on that one.

Maria Matthiessen

Poor Nancy.

Nancy Updike

Maria, I want to say up front that this story does take place in Los Angeles, the epicenter of route talk. We're going into the heart of route talk darkness. I talked to Chris Garcia, very nice man. And he told me about a drive he took about a year and a half ago from Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles to his parents' house-- about a 25 minute trip. Chris was driving, and his dad was in the front seat next to him.

Chris Garcia

We start heading east on Manhattan Beach Boulevard. And then we make a right on Pacific Coast Highway and then a left on Artesia.

Nancy Updike

So they're in the car, heading south. And they got the radio on, they're listening to oldies, sharing a bag of chips. They've driven this route probably hundreds of times. But something odd was happening in the car, so Chris started recording their conversation on his phone. It's not a great recording, but you can hear it. Chris and his dad speak Spanish to each other, as you'll hear in a second. And his dad was pointing out the window as they were driving.

Chris Garcia

He says, ah, this is the famous thing It's the-- how do you call it? And then I say, Mira Costa.

Mira costa.

Mr. Garcia

Huh?

Chris Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

My high school. He's like oh, yeah, yeah. High school.

Nancy Updike

So Chris knew when he was taking this drive with his dad that his father had Alzheimer's. He'd gone to the doctor, he'd been diagnosed. But this drive was the first time Chris had been with his dad when he'd forgotten something so familiar.

Chris Garcia

Yeah. I'd never seen him forget anything, really. Like, I know that's a big thing about dementia and Alzheimer's, is people become forgetful. But he hadn't really exhibited those types of signs before.

Nancy Updike

And where are you driving at this point?

Chris Garcia

Right now we are--

Nancy Updike

Still on Artesia?

Chris Garcia

We're still on Artesia. And the next thing he says-- he says did you play a lot?

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

Did you play a lot at, what's it called, the school? Mira Costa?

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And I said, play what? And then he says, uh, for example, baseball?

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

Which, to me, was very alarming, because that's all we did growing up. And it's a rite of passage among Cubans, you know? We played baseball all the time. Since I probably could stand up, I've been playing baseball with my dad. And I couldn't believe that he didn't remember that I had played baseball.

I was in such shock that I just continued to speak as if we were having a completely regular conversation. And then he says, Mira Costa, what, um-- what place-- what did you do? And what he meant was what position? What I inferred from it was what position did you play.

And I say first base, and he's like, ugh, great. And pitcher.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

Leftie or rightie? And I say leftie.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And then he starts laughing. He goes, man, woo! If I were around then, I would have shown you how to throw the ball. I would have taught you it all. I was a pitcher. I was a good one.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

Like, look! I'm a leftie, too! And then he starts pretend throwing the ball with his left arm.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nancy Updike

So they're about halfway home at this point. Chris had turned onto Hawthorne Boulevard. And his family used to live right off Hawthorne, so they're passing by this diner they had all these funny memories from called Norm's, the mall they always used to go to. But Chris' father was not recognizing anything. He had no idea where they were.

And it was totally unnerving him. He just was looking at the streets and asking Chris, where are we? Trying to orient himself.

Chris Garcia

I said we're taking the street to Western. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And then my dad says, I can't get out at Western. I don't have enough to cover that fare. I can't go that far.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nancy Updike

So now he thinks he's in a taxi?

Chris Garcia

Yeah. Now he thinks I'm a cab driver. And he calls me young man. He goes, uh, where you going, [SPANISH]-- young man?

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And you could hear it in my voice, when I'm like, hm? I say we're going down to Western and then we're making a right and that will get us home.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

And I keep on reiterating home, la casa, our home. I'm taking you home. And none of this is really computing to him.

Nancy Updike

When you were a kid, how was his sense of direction?

Chris Garcia

Completely stellar sense of direction. When I was a student at Berkeley, my dad came to visit me, and I had class all day. And so my dad just went out by himself. And when I got home, my dad wasn't even home yet.

He comes home an hour later, and he's like, yeah, well, I started off, I went to Oakland, I went to the farmer's market there. I almost got a baseball game, but I didn't. And then I took BART across to San Francisco, and then I went to Golden Gate Park. I met this wonderful Russian man who was very sweet, and then saw that Stow Lake place there and walked across the beach. You call that a beach? It's really foggy and cold. Anyway, really fun day.

That's the type of sense of direction and the type of sense of adventure that my dad had, where you could just leave him in a city and he would just kill it. And he pretty much had one of the most amazing memories of anyone I'd ever known.

Nancy Updike

So they're just about home at this point. And Chris had been planning on turning off of Hawthorne Boulevard onto 190th and then onto Western, like he usually did. But he was so caught up in what was happening in the car with his dad that he blew right past 190th, drove all the way to Carson, turned there. And that's when his dad turned to him and said, where are you from?

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

He's like, where are you from, my friend? And I go, what? What do you mean, where am I from? And I say, I'm from here. And he says, the United States. And I say, yeah. And then, very sweetly, he turns to me and he goes, I'll appreciate this ride my entire life. You are a very good and decent person.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

(VOICE BREAKING) Still, you know, a sweet, charming guy, even though he didn't know that I was his son anymore. You can hear the indicator, the turn signal. And I tell him it's the next block, 218. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

2-1-8. Which is our block.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And he goes, are you sure this is the street? Just let me out. And I say, Dad, I'm taking you all the way home. And then he goes, [SPANISH], which is like, he's going, like, what a stud. And then he's like--

Nancy Updike

To you.

Chris Garcia

To me. He's like, what a stud. Many, many, many thanks, compadre. Like, thanks, brother.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And then he goes, uh, may God-- oh, that's where I live.

Nancy Updike

So all of the sudden he recognizes it.

Chris Garcia

Yeah.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

And we walk up to the apartment, and I open the door. And I go, here we are, Dad. And he was like, you were the one that was driving me? And I go, yeah. And he goes, really? And I go, yeah. And he goes, oh, you were the one that was talking all this and that and all that stuff? And I go yeah, Dad, I gave the ride.

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Chris Garcia

My dad's like-- he's-- it such a sweet tone in his voice. He's like, really? Oh, ah! And he's just like, oh, I can't believe it!

Mr. Garcia

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nancy Updike

Nancy Updike, talking with Chris Garcia. Chris is a comedian based in Los Angeles, and to find out when he's coming to your city you can go to ChrisGarciaComedy.com.

Sarah Koenig

So Mom, route talk, huh?

Maria Matthiessen

No. That wasn't a route talk story. That was a dad and lad and Alzheimer's story.

Sarah Koenig

We were hoping you wouldn't notice that.

Maria Matthiessen

Well, I did, I'm afraid.

Sarah Koenig

OK. So you're saying that's a point for you?

Maria Matthiessen

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

All right. So final score, let me look at my paper. We've got-- you won. Three and a half for you, and two and a half for This American Life.

Maria Matthiessen

Well.

Sarah Koenig

You've won.

Maria Matthiessen

I'm very glad to hear it.

[MUSIC - "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT" BY HOLYSEXYBASTARDS]

Credits.

Sarah Koenig

OK, Mom. Now's the time for the credits.

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek, Ira Glass, and me, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Dana Chivvis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant and Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.

Research help today from Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can subscribe to our free weekly podcast or listen to our new 24-hour stream of episodes from the archive-- like a radio station that only plays our show-- at thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks as always to our show's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who really put his foot down this week.

Maria Matthiessen

If you're going to take something earlier that I said and put it here at the end to make me look stupid, I'm going to be really cross.

Sarah Koenig

I'm Sarah Koenig. Egg Ira will be back hosting next week with more stories of this American life.

[MUSIC - "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT" BY HOLYSEXYBASTARDS]

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.