Transcript

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Magic Words
Transcript

Originally aired 08.15.2014

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. For the internet version of this episode, we did not bleep curse words. Those words remain intact in this transcript.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, here's one of the strangest outcomes in a courtroom I've heard about in a while. And it contains a lesson that very well might come in handy for you-- and I do mean you-- someday in your own life.

Jake Halpern was the reporter who witnessed this. It was in a courtroom in Georgia. He was down there researching a book about credit card debt.

Jake Halpern

This is called-- in Georgia they call it magistrate court, and it's basically small claims court. And you go in, and it's all debtors. People refer to it even as debtors court.

Ira Glass

So Jake meets a couple sitting there, Frederick and Keanne. They're in their 40s, nicely dressed. She's a shoe salesman. He's an ex marine who had a business buying houses, rehabbing them, and then selling them, which was going great until the housing market fell apart in 2008. And then that kind of went to hell for a while. They ended up taking on some debt.

And then they got a notice in the mail saying that they owed money to a company called LVNV Funding, which is what brought them to court.

Jake Halpern

And Keanne at this point says like, I don't even know who LVNV Funding is. And one of the reasons that she says "I'm here today in court" is just to figure out what this is all about, because she doesn't even recognize them as being a creditor.

Ira Glass

How much are they on the hook for?

Jake Halpern

They're on the hook for $3,762.20.

We're sitting there talking, and this young guy in a suit all of the sudden calls out their name. And for a moment, it's not clear who exactly he is. He calls it out in the way that an official would call out your name. And they start walking over to talk to this guy.

This young guy quickly says, I'm the lawyer representing the people that own your debt. Are you Keanne, are you Frederick? And then he looks at me and he's like, who are you?

Ira Glass

Jake explains that he's a reporter, he's researching a book. The guy replies--

Jake Halpern

Well, I'm not comfortable with you being here. And Frederick is like, well, we are comfortable with him being here. And there's this moment. And this lawyer rolls his eyes and continues with his pitch to them.

Ira Glass

Frederick and Keanne tell the lawyer that they're confused. They don't know who this NVLV Funding is or what the debt is. And the lawyer says that his client owns their American Express debt.

Basically, when Frederick and Keanne failed to pay off their American Express bill, American Express sold the IOU to this company, and they're trying to collect it. Obviously, that's a big business. There are lots of companies that do this.

The lawyer asks them--

Jake Halpern

You did have an American Express card, correct? And they say, yeah, we had an American Express card. And you do live at-- and he gives their address. Yes. Well, this is what you owe.

And then he reaches into his briefcase and he pulls out this piece of paper, which I'm actually holding in front of me. I brought it along. At first glance, it resembles a credit card statement like the ones we get every month that says what you owe.

But then at the top it says, this is an account summary. It is not a credit card statement from the original creditor and has not previously been provided to the consumer.

So it's really bizarre right off the start. Because they're handing this thing that's clearly been set up to resemble a credit card statement, and yet there it says right at the top, but this is not actually a credit card statement.

Ira Glass

And so the things you would find in a normal credit card statement, like a list of charges, it doesn't have that. It doesn't say how much of this is the original debt and how much is interest. There's nothing that would help you figure out how they got to the number $3,762.20.

So Frederick asks the guy if he has anything else that would make sense of this number. Does he have the original contract from when they took out the credit card to prove that in fact his client does actually own the debt now and it's all legit?

The lawyer says he doesn't need to provide any of that. The debt is real. They have to pay.

And then Jake pipes up. For his reporting, he's wondering, does the lawyer actually have any of that stuff-- the original signed contract or account statements?

Jake Halpern

So the lawyer turns back to me and he says, are you representing them? And I said, no, no, I'm just curious. And he's like, well, you can't represent them. You are not a lawyer.

And Frederick is like, he's not representing us. He just asked the same question that I did.

Ira Glass

The lawyer repeats, you can't represent them. And Jake says they go around and around in this for a while.

And finally, it's time to go into the courtroom. And as they walk in, the lawyer taps Jake on the shoulder and tells them, I'm going to put you on the witness stand.

Jake Halpern

And I was like, OK. I couldn't tell-- it's just a crazy thing to say. I didn't know if he was just messing with me.

Five minutes later, they call Keanne's name out, and then the judge also says, Jake Halpern, you need to come up here, too. And then it's me and Keanne raising our hands together and being sworn in together, almost like codefendants. That's the only way I can describe it. It's like we're both on trial.

Ira Glass

And you've known Keanne how long at this point?

Jake Halpern

I had known her like 10 minutes.

Ira Glass

OK. OK.

Jake Halpern

The young lawyer immediately starts his opening argument. He tells the judge, this man right here is representing this couple, and he is therefore practicing law without a license. Your honor, I need you to inform him that he could face criminal sanctions for doing this.

Ira Glass

Jake tells the judge that he only asked a few questions. And the judge rules, it turns out, this is not the same thing as pretending to be a lawyer. So that gets settled.

And then they turn to the business at hand. Remember, this entire story I'm telling you is about credit card debt and what happens in court when a consumer is sued.

And so far, as you see, the lawyer is playing hardball. He is not messing around, which makes what happens next even more interesting. The judge turns to the lawyer, and the judge says to the lawyer, what do you want to do about this debt?

Jake Halpern

And the lawyer then says to the judge, you know what, give me a minute. I need to consult with my client.

So he walks out of the courtroom. Me and Keanne and the judge are left in the courtroom. The lawyer goes out into the hallway and then comes back two minutes later and says, your honor, we're going to be dropping this, dismissing the case.

Ira Glass

What?

Jake Halpern

Yeah. And I'm looking at her. Keanne is looking at me. And we're both like, this makes no sense after all this fuss, this full-court press you put on us.

Ira Glass

So Jake and Keanne and Frederick go into the hallway, and they are trying to figure out what in the world just happened. This lawyer from Georgia Legal Services who saw this whole thing go down joins their conversation.

Jake Halpern

And he's not in the least bit surprised by this. He's like, oh yeah, of course he dropped the case. And I'm like, what do you mean, of course he dropped the case?

He said, oh, well, when a consumer actually shows up in court and says the magic words, then these cases basically evaporate. And I say, the magic words? He says, yeah. Show me the evidence.

Ira Glass

Show me the evidence. In other words, show me where you got this number, $3,762.20.

The Georgia Legal Services lawyer told Jake that if you're standing before a judge and you say, OK, I don't recognize this amount that you say I owe, and I want to see some documentation, I want to see account statements or whatever, because I have no way to know with certainty that this debt is really mine, the judge will usually turn to the other side and ask for the evidence. And in all likelihood, they'll have no documentation and they'll drop the case.

And this is true not just in Georgia, but elsewhere. Because the way this business works, Jake says, when credit card companies sell these IOUs to debt collection companies, they usually don't give them any documentation. Usually they just give them a spreadsheet with a long list of people who owe money on their credit cards and their addresses and the last payment and how much they owe, and not a whole lot more than that.

So when these companies take you and me to court, what they're betting on is we won't show up. Which is a really good bet, Jake says. Because--

Jake Halpern

The vast majority of people who are debtors being sued don't actually show up in court. The no-show rate, there's different estimates, but between 80% and 90% of people don't show up.

Ira Glass

If they don't show up, they lose. If they showed up, if they said the magic words, they would probably win.

And now you know the magic words. You can use them yourself. Though Jake said he is not sure that he thinks that's always such a good thing. He talked to another guy who had a lot of debt. This is an Indian immigrant who owned a steakhouse and owed like $300,000.

Jake Halpern

And he had used these magic words almost to the point where it was a scam. He owed all this money for the steakhouse that had gone bust, and he was just showing up in court and saying, show me the original signed contract. Show me the statements. And he was beating these debts left and right.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Jake Halpern

Yeah. He was working it. Oh my God, there's this magic button and I can totally get off the hook for all this money that I owe. I'm just going to keep on hitting it, boom, boom, boom.

Ira Glass

But you see, now you're confusing me. Because up until now, I thought the magic button was a really good thing. And now I think maybe it's a bad thing, too.

Jake Halpern

It could be a good thing or a bad thing. I felt conflicted about it. It seems strange that you wouldn't now have to pay off anything of what you borrowed.

Ira Glass

What a day on our program. Magic words-- they can be used for good or for evil. We have stories of magic words that supposedly do all kinds of incredible things, like erase your debts, as you just heard, or make you rich, levitate you, help you get along better with your older relatives whose minds are going.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass with the same magic words that I intone every week at this time, full of hope that they're going to work even though the actual magic they contain is next to nothing. Those words-- stay with us.

Act One. I Believe I Can Fly.

Ira Glass

Act 1-- I Believe I Can Fly.

There's this book full of magic words that one of our contributors, Jonathan Goldstein, found in his apartment when he was moving recently. He hadn't looked at it in over 30 years. It's called "Ultra-Psychonics-- How To Work Miracles With The Limitless Power Of Psychoatomic Energy." It was written by a man named Walter Delaney, published in 1975.

The book's premise, its basic premise, is that just as objects are composed of atoms, thoughts are composed of psychic atoms, or what Delaney calls psychons, ultrons, and egons. I'm just going to let Jonathan explain what all that means.

Jonathan Goldstein

I was 11 years old when my father walked into my bedroom and handed me a copy of "Ultra-Psychonics." He wasn't much of a gift giver-- more of a check giver-- but I was in to magic tricks and fantasy novels, so when he saw it in a used bookstore, he must have thought it would be right up my alley.

The frayed yellow dust jacket promised a grab bag of every occult slash parapsychology slash self help topic under the sun, all in 237 pages. Among other things, the book promised to teach you how to shoot mental laser beams, move solid objects with your mind, make others obey your command, multiply your brain power by a factor of 1,000, and defend yourself against demonic attack.

"Ultra-Psychonics" revealed what I always suspected-- that the adult world operated on magic. Finding a job, a wife, acquiring a bag of Egg McMuffins with the mere flash of a plastic card. How else were these things accomplished? To an 11-year-old, the book's theories seemed as plausible as anything else.

An excerpt from page 217 explains the secret of ultra levitation. "One, remove all your clothes and stand on a bathroom scale. Two, generate the ultronic power globe on a string as you did for the ultronic poltergeist technique. Three, concentrate on making it a rise like a balloon, lifting you with it. Four, keep your eyes on the scale. It will start to drop bit by bit, showing that you are getting lighter."

This wasn't your granddaddy's old levitation. This was ultra levitation. And most importantly for me, ultra-psychonics required neither time nor effort. The inside flap stated it was as simple, easy, and natural as breathing. And for a child adept at breathing, but little else, this was exciting news.

In those dark, ignorant days before the universal remote, one had to rise, not unlike an animal, from one's perch to change TV stations. By using ultra kinetics as outlined in chapter 13, I'd never have to debase myself that way again. Never again would I have to suffer through the depressing stage lighting of Barney Miller when the "Beverly Hillbillies' was a mere psychic click away. No longer would I be pathetic. I would be ultra tele-pathetic.

This was during the Eden of my preadolescence, a time when I had yet to discover the Kmart lingerie insert, and so had plenty of time on my hands. I wasted hours in bed lying flat on my stomach with the book open at my side, squinting so hard that my vision began to blur as I tried to close the bedroom door with my mind. Even though I had, as the book instructed, dutifully turned on the ultronic generator in my head to stimulate my flow of voltrons, I was getting nowhere.

I assumed the fault was mine, that I was not following the instructions properly. But reading it now, it's hard to figure out how anyone could follow along. I now wonder whether my father knew it was insane and had only gifted me with the book as a means of getting me out of his hair. He could read in peace while his son stared at a door jamb for hours on end.

I wonder if my father still even remembered the book.

Jonathan's Father

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

You remember it?

Jonathan's Father

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

Right off the bat?

Jonathan's Father

Right.

Jonathan Goldstein

I thought I'd have to refresh your memory.

Jonathan's Father

No, no, no. I remember it. It's all kinds of-- what do you call it-- experiments and magic, very scientifically proven and concrete and so forth. They give you a formula, step-by-step way of doing it, et cetera.

Jonathan Goldstein

Did you try any of the techniques that were offered in the book?

Jonathan's Father

No, I never tried any. But for some reason I thought, maybe there's a certain amount of validity, maybe.

Jonathan Goldstein

But I don't know that I necessarily think of you as a believer in that kind of stuff.

Jonathan's Father

I don't poo poo it. I don't poo poo anything.

Jonathan Goldstein

This is patently false. My father's has poo pooed everything, from sushi to liquid soap. He's poo pooed abstract expressionism, the Rolling Stones, and the entire state of Florida. He once even poo pooed my poo poo platter, telling me egg rolls were best enjoyed cold.

In fact, whenever my great uncle Saul bragged about how his other nephew Barney was a successful doctor, my father poo pooed the hell out of that. Getting himself worked up, he'd insist that a chiropodist was no doctor.

Jonathan Goldstein

You remember mom's uncle Saul used to have a nephew named Barney?

Jonathan's Father

Chiropodist.

Jonathan Goldstein

A foot doctor.

Jonathan's Father

No, he's not a medical doctor, no. You're not an MD. You can't operate on my foot.

Jonathan Goldstein

Here's what I'm saying, is I--

Jonathan's Father

If I have a bunion or a corn.

Jonathan Goldstein

Right, OK. I bring that up to illustrate the fact that you don't just swallow things hook, line, and sinker. Here was somebody presenting someone as a foot doctor, and you said, no, he's not a doctor.

Jonathan's Father

That's right.

Jonathan Goldstein

But in the case of this, I imagine, you approached it probably with some skepticism.

Jonathan's Father

This book was kind of-- how could I put it-- seemed to me to be backed by some fact.

Jonathan Goldstein

Why?

Jonathan's Father

The way it was written.

Jonathan Goldstein

What was it about the way that it was written?

Jonathan's Father

Because it was so concrete, so specific. There was nothing vague about it.

It's a solid book. It's got a table of contents if I remember. It's not like any little leaflet or pamphlet.

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah.

Jonathan's Father

Whoever wrote this, well, he put a lot of effort into it. I'll tell you that. He put a lot of effort into it.

I get the feeling this guy wasn't trying to con anybody. He really believed what he was writing.

Jonathan Goldstein

Did Walter Delaney really believe what he was writing? Believe, for instance, that while the old-fashioned zodiac was outdated, his psychonic zodiac with its cryanox, vernox, estavox and invernox signs was more scientific as it was seasonally based? And that even if you were born under the estavox summer sign, you might exhibit a more cryanox winter type personality if you were born in an air conditioned hospital?

The back of the book refers to him as, quote, "one of the world's leading authorities on the psychic and occult sciences." But I could find no mention of him anywhere on the internet. It was only when I searched on Walter Delaney and pseudonym that I finally got a lead.

It turns out that like so many other mystical men from Leonard Susskind to Regis Philbin to my father Buzz Goldstein, Walter Delaney was originally a Jew from the Bronx by the name of Joseph Schaumberger. Schaumberger passed away in 2011. But I managed to track down his daughter, Barbara. She was in her early 20s when her dad was writing the book, and she remembers it clearly.

At the time, Schaumberger was living in New Jersey and making a decent wage as an editor at a publishing house that specialized in occult self help books with titles like "Secrets From Beyond The Pyramids" and "The Magic Of Chantomatics." And he was astonished by the amount of money he saw writers making. Here's Barbara.

Barbara

They were just taking buckets of money home, and it was driving him crazy. So his wife Dorothy said, well, why don't you write one of these books yourself?

Jonathan Goldstein

Had he ever written a book before?

Barbara

No. But what he did was this careful study. He just flipped through magazines and looked at newspapers, and he read scientific journals and such. So from that combination of things, he just pulled ideas out and made what sounded good to him.

Jonathan Goldstein

Was his intention to make it scientific?

Barbara

No. No, his intention was to make money. You have to understand that this was just a-- it started out as a kind of warped family joke. And he'd read it to the family and say, does this sound reasonable? Does this sound interesting?

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you remember him reading you actual passages from the book?

Barbara

Oh yeah. The absolute family favorite was the money one where he-- one chapter was about money, about making money.

Jonathan Goldstein

I think that was in the chapter on ultra pictronics, how to materialize the riches you desire.

Barbara

I'll be honest. I've never read the whole book all the way through.

But anyway, he said, this is where you would go around the house, you would gather up your bills and your bank statements and your wallet and such, and you'd put them all under your pillow. And then you would have this formula, this chant that you would use. The lyrics go, my money lies under my pillow, my money lies close to me, no matter what I do tomorrow, bring back my money to me. This was written to be sung to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean."

Any time I hear those words, I can hear it in my head. I can hear the echo of my father singing that song.

Jonathan Goldstein

Looking at it now, it seems obvious it was a lark. It almost reads like a parody of another famous science fiction slash self help book with a lot of psuedoscience jargon that, for legal reasons, I will only say rhymes with diuretics.

Take, for instance, the astral spur. You were supposed to use it at the race track to give your horse extra energy, and it involved standing on one foot and projecting a psychic laser at your horse's hindquarters.

Then there's the section on ultra vision influence. The road to domination is explained this way-- one, sit in front of a mirror and practice staring fixedly into your own eyes. Two, practice the look on animals. Cats are the best. See if you can stare down a cat. Don't be surprised if the cat seems to win the first few rounds. Three, practice the look on strangers on various forms of public transport. Stare steadily at someone sitting opposite you until you force them to turn their head away or look down. You have just mastered your first human subject.

Jonathan Goldstein

I'm not that surprised, but I'm a little saddened. I discovered the book when I was 11 years old, so that little kid part of me--

Barbara

Oh, I'm so sorry.

Jonathan Goldstein

No, no. It makes sense. Because there are parts in the book where he references things like "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" and "The Golden Flower" and things from Eastern philosophy.

Barbara

Well, he was very familiar with all these things. The "Egyptian Book of the Dead" was a big one, because there was always this thing of, well, maybe if they had followed the formulas correctly, maybe something--

Jonathan Goldstein

He would say that?

Barbara

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

That sounds like someone who either did believe or kind of wanted to believe.

Barbara

He may have wanted to believe. It may be that in his private thoughts, there were some things in there that he believed in. I can't see him as sharing that with us, because he didn't want to open himself up to ridicule. He was a very geeky science fiction fan looking person-- the thick, black, heavy-lensed eyeglasses, kind of short, pudgy, Jewish boy from the Bronx. He was a very quiet, private person.

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you have any idea how he arrived upon the name Walter Delaney?

Barbara

Of course. He was at the office, and the book was all ready for publication, had gone through all the copy editing. And he wandered into the men's room at Prentice Hall thinking, where am I going to find a name? What name can I use that's not going to be identifiable? And he looked at the top of the urinal, and there was the brand of the urinal-- Delaney Flush Boy. So it became Walter Delaney from the Delaney Flush Boy urinal.

Jonathan Goldstein

Barbara told me that not only did her father make enough money from the book to buy a large, beautiful house and take his wife on European vacations where they went to operas, she also said that Schaumberger received boxes and boxes of letters from readers thanking him and requesting further guidance.

In re-reading the book all these years later, I still remember the stuff about how to travel to the furthest reaches of the galaxy through mind power. But what I didn't remember at all was the last chapter-- chapter 14.

In the book's introduction, Schaumberger promises that in the final chapter, he would reveal nothing short of the meaning of life. What could be of less interest to an 11-year-old? And what does the chapter contain? It outlines the 10 actions for leading a good life-- the joy of giving, humility, working, caring, fidelity, sufficiency, calmness, learning, meditation, and reverence. Nothing flashy, no ultras-- just the golden rule kind of stuff.

I asked Barbara why she thought her father included all this straightforward, do-unto-others kind of thing with not a single ultra in sight.

Barbara

I think he believed in that quite passionately. And it would have been the only platform he had. And if there was anything that would transform their lives, it wasn't going to be gained by chanting. It would be gained by living your life according to some basic principles of decency.

Jonathan Goldstein

Chapter 14 is the last stage in Ultra-Psychonics, wrote Schaumberger. It is the culmination of many long and arduous years of research. Please do not try to read it now. You will not be able to understand it until you have mastered the rest of the book. But once you are ready for it, I think you will find it to be one of the most profound and rewarding experiences in your life.

Of all the chapters in Schaumberger's book, it's this last one that might be the hardest of all to master. It's the chapter with the fewest instructions. And on some days, I still don't feel quite ready for it.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein. He's the host of the CBC radio show and podcast Wiretap.

Coming up, how to properly use monkeys-- yes, monkeys, I said monkeys-- for the betterment of your family. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Rainy Days and Mondys.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.

Today's show-- magic words. They're used for good. They're used for evil. We wish that they're going to work. We cross our fingers and we wait to see if they will work. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2: Rainy Days and Mondys.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, every 67 seconds, somebody in the United States develops the disease. We're at this point with Alzheimer's where almost everybody has had some sort of personal experience with the disease through a spouse or parent or friend. And because we've had that direct experience, we all know how scary Alzheimer's can be.

The thing you hear a lot is the emotional toll of taking care of parents and spouses, and you hear about the cost. But there's this other, more basic challenge, and people don't talk about this as much. But it must be a problem that everyone close to the disease struggles with.

That is-- what are we supposed to talk about with our relatives who have Alzheimer's? What do we talk about? The same stuff we always have?

Sharon

Did they tell you Jenny and Joe are moving to Florida?

Virginia

No.

Sharon

Yep. Joe got a promotion, and they're going to go to Florida.

Ira Glass

Sharon Stobbe is sitting on the back porch of her sister's home with her mom, Virginia. Sharon says to her mom, you were in Florida.

Sharon

Where were you?

Virginia

Let me think. I can't remember.

Sharon

Do you remember who you were with?

Ira Glass

It was a little off mic. She says, do you remember who you were with?

Virginia

I was with Betty.

Sharon

Yeah.

Virginia

Oh, dear.

Sharon

And you met somebody there.

Virginia

(SINGING) Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Sharon

You met somebody special there.

Ira Glass

Dad. Dad is the answer Sharon is searching for. My father, your husband. Sharon didn't go into this conversation trying to play some memory game with her mom. She just kind of fell into that.

And it's easy to see how. You love your mom. You want to spend time with your mom. What are you going to talk about? Shared memories about mutual loved ones are not remembered. Even current news, joyful news, does not necessarily create a connection.

Right before they sit down in the court, Sharon's sister showed Virginia a picture of her two-week-old granddaughter and said, Mom, look how beautiful, your great granddaughter. Virginia looked at the picture and said "oh no" for no clear reason at all.

Sharon has a sister named Karen. Sharon is the oldest. Karen is the youngest. Virginia, the mom, was with Karen. One of our producers, Chana Joffe-Walt, got interested in this experiment that Karen has been trying in their family.

Karen has been on a search for a new way to talk to her mom, looking for some magic words to say to her mom as her mom is losing her memory, words that will keep them connected. And recently she developed a plan, a fully formed theory of social interaction for the dementia landscape. She's got rules. She's got best practices. It's a whole thing. And she thinks it can work. Here's Chana Joffe-Walt to explain.

Chana Joffe-walt

Karen didn't have the plan in place when her mom first moved in with her. But she has wanted a plan from day one. Day one, there was just this constant stream of questions that never had definitive answers, like can I leave my mom at home alone, or what am I supposed to do when she wakes up at 2:00 the morning and starts getting dressed. What about when she wants another bowl of ice cream and I remind her that she has diabetes, but she forgets that she has diabetes?

See, Karen is a person who likes structure. The lawless, do-it-yourself nature of home dementia care never sat well with her. Karen would do what she thought was right, take the ice cream away, and her mom would lose it, scream at her. This is a woman who never had a cruel word to say about anyone, who considered shoot a swear word. She would look right into Karen's eyes and say, you're a supreme asshole, you know that?

Karen

I had this moment where I Googled the rules of caregiving for someone with Alzheimer's. I wondered, for some reason, if they were even out there, if there was some.

And when I read one of them that said, literally, step into their world, I went, [SIGH] bam.

Chana Joffe-walt

Step into their world was a familiar phrase to Karen from the many nights she had spent doing improv comedy. She and her husband are actors. Step into their world is a mantra in improv. You walk on stage, another actor says something, and you step into their world, whatever world they've just created. You don't ever say no. You don't question their premise. You just say yes. And--

Karen

I didn't even see it. I didn't see the whole parallels of improv and Alzheimer's. And when I did, it with just so obvious. It's a whole "yes, and" world.

Chana Joffe-walt

If all you've got is "yes, and," you can't say things like, but you don't even like pickles, or, you don't have a sister, Mom. You don't tell someone they're wrong, which Karen says is exactly what you always want to do. When her mom says she wants to go home, the most natural response is--

Karen

Oh, but this is your home now, Virginia. Come let me show you your room.

But this woman is looking at you saying, I want to go home. And you're telling her she lives here. So now you're telling her she's a liar. You're going to see her little veins start popping out in her neck and her little fists. But if you look at her and you say-- she says, I want to go home. Yes, and tell me about your home.

Chana Joffe-walt

Now she's not a liar anymore. Karen felt like she'd discovered an instruction manual. Here was a way into a relationship with her mom if she just followed some basic rules of engagement, rules she conveniently already knew. And so did her husband, Mondy, who was glad to have some guidelines for how to relate to this new roommate. It's like improv, Karen explained. You love improv.

Mondy

That's when I was like, OK, that's cool. I know how to do that. And that's what I'll do.

Chana Joffe-walt

For Karen, using the tools of improv meant when her mom, Virginia, sees monkeys out the window, don't correct her. But Mondy, Mondy took the whole thing to the next level. When Virginia sees monkeys, Mondy sees them too. He told me, oh yeah, just the last time that happened, I said--

Mondy

It's pretty early in the season for monkeys. Didn't even know, actually, that they were here in North Carolina.

Oh, there's not a lot of them. But they're pretty busy now.

Well, if you see one again, we should try and capture it. Because that would be a blast to have in the house.

You can't keep monkeys in the house.

Well, you just have to train them right and give them pants. Because if they don't have pants, that's just a barbarian's monkey.

We can't have monkeys in the house.

All right, all right. So I guess you're making up a rule that we can't have monkeys in the house.

Yes, I am.

At some point, there's something in her mind that's going, we're not being serious now about monkeys in the house.

Chana Joffe-walt

And it's fun for her?

Mondy

And it's fun for her, yeah. She's definitely having a good time.

Chana Joffe-walt

For years, the staff in nursing homes and dementia care experts advised families to keep your loved ones with you, mentally speaking. Remind them who they are, where they're from, show them pictures of your family, hang orientation boards everywhere that say, today is August 15, the weather is overcast, the president is Barack Obama.

But recently, the experts have changed course. And in the last decade or so, things like validation therapy are what's in. Caregivers are encouraged to listen, respond, try to live in their reality instead of trying to pull them over into yours-- basically, exactly what Karen and Mondy stumbled into on their own.

Most people find it pretty challenging to interact in this way. But for Mondy and Karen, it's not hard. Mondy does it all the time without thinking.

Mondy

How are you doing?

Virginia

I'm OK.

Mondy

Yeah?

Virginia

I think.

Mondy

What a day.

Virginia

It's strange. When you get up and out, it's much lighter in the sky. I'm very noticeable.

Mondy

You are very noticeable.

Virginia

Thanks.

Mondy

I've noticed you.

Virginia

[LAUGHS] [INAUDIBLE]

Mondy

I've noticed you before.

Virginia

[LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-walt

Virginia points to the family terrier, Gus, tarrying around the backyard, digging holes.

Virginia

He's digging for his life.

Mondy

Oh yeah. Gus is busy working on his caverns. He's starting a coal mine. So he's going to get it started and you're going to finish it up, right?

Virginia

[LAUGHS] I am--

Mondy

The coal mine.

Virginia

The coal mine? I never worked in a coal mine.

Mondy

I know.

Chana Joffe-walt

Mondy says, but I need you to now. I need your help finishing up the mine. We've got to get out there and find some coal so we can pay off these bills.

Virginia gleefully refuses. So Mondy says, oh well, we'll have to shut down the whole operation then.

Mondy

All right, Gus. No, she doesn't want to go in, man.

Karen

Stop digging.

Mondy

All right, stop digging.

Virginia

Stop digging.

Karen

Gus!

Virginia

No digging. No, no, no.

Chana Joffe-walt

This is a family all doing something together, sharing the same reality-- the reality of closing down the coal mine in the backyard.

When you're with your family-- your parents, uncles, say Thanksgiving-- think about how much time you spend collectively recalling things. Remember when Mom laughed so hard that juice came out of her nose? Remember when Dad got in that crash? Or, did I ever tell you how you potty trained yourself because you saw your brother doing it?

It's nice to share memories. It makes you feel connected. But also, usually what you're actually doing in that moment with your family is boring. You're watching the game, eating chicken for dinner again. It's fun to recall the more dramatic moments you've shared because they are not boring. They're not boring experiences you've had together.

Virginia no longer has those memories to call on. She spends a lot of her day sitting on a porch, which can't be all that interesting. But when Mondy is with her, there is literally drama. They're dismantling a mine. It's the most animated and happy I see Virginia all day.

Mondy

Yeah, the coal mine thing is over.

Virginia

He'll be here in a few seconds. There he is.

Mondy

The coal mine thing is over. No more Gus caverns.

Virginia

[LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-walt

Mondy and Karen moved to North Carolina from Milwaukee to live with Karen's mom. It was closer to the rest of the family. And to Mondy, it seemed like a good time to move.

But he was wrong about that in one crucial way. It was 2006, right before the economy collapsed. They have found other ways to make ends meet, but Mondy left behind regular acting gigs, theater contacts, teaching jobs, just assuming that he would find that stuff in North Carolina, which didn't happen right away.

Mondy

I'm a performer. I like to get on stage and do these shows, and I like an audience. And for a long time while I was here, I didn't get a chance to perform that much. And so I guess I kind of focused my energy towards her.

Chana Joffe-walt

Towards Virginia, his mother-in-law. Mondy says Virginia is an excellent audience. I never have to reign myself in. I can do anything, any kind of joke. The only thing that doesn't really work is a call back.

And when Virginia was with Mondy, the sweet woman everyone remembered started coming back.

Mondy

I'll just do the simplest thing for her. I'll get the cream out of the refrigerator and put it in the coffee and she'll say, you're the nicest person in the world. And I'll go, yes, I am the nicest person in the world. You're right. We've got to go find all the people that say I'm not the nicest person and slap them in their face and make them agree that I'm the nicest person in the world. And she'll find that pretty funny.

Chana Joffe-walt

You know who doesn't find that so funny? Mondy's wife, Karen. Karen told Mondy he had to find a way to perform more outside of the house. He was driving her crazy.

Mondy

Yes. Yeah. Karen's mom was fine with it, but Karen was tired of it.

Chana Joffe-walt

Their teenage daughter Grace was tired of it, too. Grace is 15 years old. So when her grandmother sees something in the paper about the Beatles and says, oh, I've met them, it's like Grace is developmentally obliged to correct her. No you didn't.

Mondy could see where they were coming from. And he did eventually get out to more auditions, got some acting work. But by that point, Mondy was Virginia's favorite person.

Virginia regularly wakes up in the middle of the night and starts getting dressed, and it's Mondy who can get her back to bed. At breakfast when Virginia wants another bowl of cereal, Karen will say to her, I'm sorry Mom, your blood sugar will just go through the roof. Virginia will sometimes reply, you're always so mean to me. Karen will try, hey, can I have that bowl of cereal? No. Mom, how about something else? To which Karen's mother will occasionally reply to her daughter, I hate you.

Karen

But Mondy can swoop in there and go, hey, boy, that looks good. I'm so hungry. And she said, oh, you want this? You can have it.

And I'd be like, you've got to be kidding me. What the heck? What is it about him that she'll do whatever for and not me?

Chana Joffe-walt

One obvious answer is Mondy is not her kid. But remember, Karen's mom has dementia. She doesn't always know Karen is her kid. So if they're both strangers with the same approach, same words, it may just be that Mondy does it better.

And that has created a bizarre reordering of the family dynamic. Karen has always been close to her mom. And now her mom likes Mondy more.

Karen

What do you know about Mondy?

Mondy

Mondy? Couldn't be a nicer fella. Very nice guy. Very kind, very nice. He's just crazy sometimes. Makes you laugh.

Chana Joffe-walt

Virginia is sitting with Mondy on the back porch. It's the end of the day. Karen is finishing up the dishes inside. And when she's done, she wanders out back. And this is what she walks into.

Virginia

You're very intelligent.

Mondy

I am.

Virginia

Yeah, you are.

Mondy

That's true.

Virginia

Very nice.

Mondy

Wonderful.

Virginia

What else should I tell him that he is?

Mondy

Wonderful.

Virginia

Didn't I say that he's wonderful?

Mondy

I don't think you said I was wonderful.

Virginia

I did. I said he's--

Karen

Did you say he was good looking?

Virginia

He knows I know. I mean, he is. He's handsome.

Karen

And he never does anything wrong.

Virginia

Well--

Karen

Because what do you say sometimes? What do you say sometimes if I say Mondy, you forgot to take out the trash? You say, poor Mondy.

Virginia

[LAUGHS]

Karen

Everything is poor Mondy.

Virginia

Just for those little things.

Karen

Mondy could walk in and have blood all over him and say, I just killed a man. Oh, poor Mondy has got blood on his shirt. That's Mom. Poor Mondy.

We were keeping count at one point how many "poor Mondys" would happen in a day.

Sharon

Grace and I were trying to get--

Karen

I was trying to get some "poor Karens." I couldn't get any "poor Karens."

Virginia

You expect a lot of them, you know?

Karen

I know. I just want a little bit of "poor Karen."

Chana Joffe-walt

Here is how deep Virginia's love is for Mondy. She has inserted him into her own childhood memories. The most vivid memories she still has-- swimming, riding in a fishing boat-- in Virginia's telling, Mondy was there for all of it.

He was there with her on the boat swimming in the water, traveling the country. Not her husband, not Karen-- Mondy. He shows up in every significant event in her life she still remembers-- like Forrest Gump, Mondy says.

Meanwhile, Virginia has completely forgotten Karen's childhood. Again, a lot of the times she's not quite sure who Karen is. And sometimes, she's not even sure she likes her.

Like the other night, Karen was trying to Grace to bed, and Grace was stalling.

Karen

Just a few more minutes kind of thing. And I said, Grace, come on. I said, no, you need to get up.

Who are you to tell her no?

And I said, well, I'm her mom.

No you're not, you liar.

And Grace was like, she is. And I was like, Grace, just go [MUMBLES]. All the way up, Grace was like, that is my mom. That's my mom. And I'm like, well, she is my daughter, and she's your granddaughter.

What? No she's not.

I said, OK. And I couldn't help myself. But I'd say, well, who do you think she is?

Well, that's mine.

I said, OK. Who am I?

I don't know. You had nowhere to live and I took you in. So you should be thankful. Well, I am. Thank you for taking me in.

Chana Joffe-walt

In a moment like that, the rules that Karen set up require the she deny who she is-- that she is Karen, daughter of Virginia, mother of Grace, who grew up in Texas with a loving family. If Karen wants to do her plan right, she can't be that person in her own home.

Starting each moment with a blank slate is easy for Mondy. It's fun to create a world out of nothing with this person as he gets to know her better. But for Karen, every interaction asks her to erase who she is.

Karen

When my mom sits there and she says, oh, strawberries, they just make me think of home, my mind goes immediately to growing up in Texas and her and I and dad going out this huge strawberry field and picking strawberries. And there is this piece that you just go-- [SIGHS] that you have to let that memory go.

Chana Joffe-walt

Because what you want to say is, oh yeah, I remember. I remember we used to go to such--

Karen

But that's what she wants to talk about right then. And you want to go, but what about me? Because you want your own mother to have those memories about you and to talk about your experiences.

Chana Joffe-walt

But Karen doesn't say the words she wants to say. She says different ones, the ones she's supposed to say.

Karen

Really, Mom? Where was it? Was it out by the cemetery?

[GASPS] Yeah. How did you know?

And you go on and listen to the story.

Chana Joffe-walt

While silently letting go of the memory that came before-- letting go of the old scene and trying to be ready for what comes next.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our show. Karen Stobbe now offers workshops on how to use the tools of improv with people who have dementia, including a special course on how to do that if those people are your parents. She's at in-themoment.com. There's a dash between in and the moment.

Act Three. Pescatarian.

Ira Glass

There's this new podcast that a bunch of us here at the radio show have started listening to put out by Slate. It's hosted by Mike Pesca, who you may have heard over the last few years reporting on sports for NPR.

This new podcast isn't about sports. It's about everything. 20 minutes a day, often about the news, though just as often not. What makes it special is, I think, the sheer joy, the gleeful, articulate energy that Mike Pesca marshals in thinking about and dissecting the world around him.

The theme today on our radio show is magic words. And I thought of Pesca today, because when he is not explaining what poker can tell us about missile defense systems or filling us in the country in Africa that is doing really, really well, Mike Pesca is somebody who seems to take great pleasure in noticing words, how people use words, and especially the misuse of words.

For example, last month, there was this day when Pesca heard about some new menu items at Red Lobster. And he heard a phrase he simply could not let pass.

Mike Pesca

I just found out that Red Lobster has introduced lobster-topped entrees. However, I want you to listen to this commercial. About 18 seconds in, I think you will see and hear the part where the spacetime crustacean continuum gets a little bent.

Man

How did Red Lobster make four amazing entrees even better? With lobster. Like savory new fire-grilled shrimp topped with maritime lobster in a citrus hollandaise, or the new ultimate lobster-topped lobster.

Mike Pesca

Did you hear what the dude said? Lobster-topped lobster. Isn't that just a bigger lobster? The one thing you can't top a lobster with is another lobster. You can't top a thing with more of the thing. It's not the top. It's just the thing.

Cherry on top, that makes sense. Cherry on top of a sundae. You know what cherry on top doesn't make sense? Cherry on top of a bunch of other cherries. Just more cherries. This is why 7/11--

Ira Glass

I have to say, I usually hate it when people go on and on about using the right word. That is not something I usually enjoy. I don't care about that. But Pesca's delight I find totally contagious. I end up repeating what he says about this stuff to my friends and my loved ones.

One day, he got on to the phrase toot your own horn. He said he'd been listening to the previous day's podcast in the interest of quality control.

Mike Pesca

I just got the sense that I was tooting my own horn. A horn was being tooted, and I, indeed, was both the tooter and the tootee.

But I really got to thinking about that phrase. I would like to take two ticks to tutor you in the term "to toot one's own horn." It is a strange phrase. It is a logically inconsistent phrase.

Tooting your own horn has an opposite number, and that is to be hoisted by one's own petard. To be hoisted by one's own petard actually makes sense. It is antiquated language. It was coined by Shakespeare.

But a petard is a small bomb, so to be hoisted by one's own petard means to be blown up by a bomb blown into the air. It's a good phrase. A bomb normally meant for someone else blows up in your own face, lifts you high off the ground. Ashton Kutcher peaks out from behind a curtain-- you've been hoisted. Great expression. I love it.

But a horn is not meant for someone else to play. The expression toot one's own horn should instead center on a situation where you're forced to operate for yourself a device that was meant to be operated by another. So a more sensible alternative would be, hey, listen, I don't mean to hold my own ladder, or, look, I'm not trying to cut my own hair over here, or listen, I'm not trying to tuck myself in at night, or far be it from me to hand start my own prop aeroplane, or I don't want to self operate a two-handed cross cut saw, or I'm not one to spot myself while bench pressing. Or even you could stick with the musical if you want-- hey, I'm not trying to play dueling banjos as a solo.

And another thing, speaking of the musical. Ever think of Louis Armstrong in this situation? How does Louis Armstrong humble brag about his own promise? Can't say anything about not tooting his own horn.

And toot, really? Toot? Toot? Did Miles Davis toot? Did Dizzy Gillespie toot? To toot one's own horn is a low form of self aggrandizement. In fact, it should be more accurately seen as a form of self mid-sizement at best.

Ira Glass

Pesca does know where the phrase "tooting your own horn" comes from. It comes from a king. A king enters a room, there are trumpeters, there is fanfare. Others toot the horns for the King. Tooting your own horn in that situation would be very, well, kind of pathetic.

But Pesca says today those are not the horns we think of when we think of horns. The phrase does not hold. And he called for a moratorium. Or if you will--

Mike Pesca

A "moratootium."

Ira Glass

All right. So let's do one more. On a Monday just after the latest outbreak of Ebola virus hit-- serious story, right-- Pesca was talking about how the news had been covered on television.

Over the weekend, the Sunday talk shows had been full of talk of a killer virus, maybe out of control. Was the public at risk? People were asking this over and over. And Pesca was parsing out what was said and what was not said.

Mike Pesca

George Stephanopoulos was interviewing Dr. Tom Friedan. He runs the CDC. And I'm going to use the opportunity to play something that we sometimes play-- talk show karaoke, wherein I assume the role of a guest on a talk show. We'll have to host ask the question, and I'll answer the question how I wish the guest would have. Let's go to George Stephanopoulos' question.

George Stephanopoulos

Dr. Friedan, as you know, a lot of anxiety here in the United States about the spread of Ebola, whether we're taking an unnecessary risk. A tweet that Donald Trump put out just the other day, he said that the US must immediately stop all flights from Ebola-infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our borders. Act fast. How do you respond to that?

Mike Pesca

I'm glad you asked, George. First, a little bit about myself. I, Tom Friedan, have a master's degree in public health from Columbia. I did my residency at Yale. I've been an epidemiologist in the field for many years. I've contained outbreaks of measles and typhoid and tuberculosis. As you know, for the last four years, I've been with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as its director. It is the foremost facility of its kind in the world. That's about me.

Now let me tell you a little bit about Donald Trump and his qualifications. Donald Trump, the man whose opinions on contagious diseases you asked me to comment on, is in real estate. He also owned the New Jersey Generals, the Eastern Airline Shuttle, the Miss USA Pageant, and was executive producer of the reality TV show "The Apprentice." A catchphrase from that show, The Apprentice, is contained in the following Trump quote about comedian Rosie O'Donnell-- quote, "I'd look her right in that fat, ugly face of hers and I'd say, Rosie, you're fired."

An interesting coincidence from both of our biographies-- I lived in India for five years were I fought disease. Donald Trump owned a casino that he called the Taj Mahal. Took it into bankruptcy. Also, Donald Trump unsuccessfully sued for $5 million after proving that his father was not, in fact, an orangutan.

And while all of this does go to Donald Trump's overall credibility in the specific area of scientific credibility, let me remind you that Richard Besser has called Donald Trump's mistaken beliefs on the causes of autism, quote, "shameful." Who is Richard Besser, you ask? Ah, that you'd ask that. Because not 45 seconds ago, here was your introduction of this discussion that we're having right now.

George Stephanopoulos

Joining us now from Atlanta, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Friedan, and our own Dr. Richard Besser, also a veteran of the CDC.

Mike Pesca

Richard Besser is your network's chief health and medical editor. He said that following Trump's advice, quote, "can kill children." So again, your question is what do I think of Donald Trump's tweet.

I just want to go back to a little bit about my biography again. I have over 200 peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals. But again, the question for me to respond to-- Donald Trump's tweet that the US should stop all flights from Ebola-infected countries-- I guess I'll say this in response to that question, George. I should answer Donald Trump's take on science as soon as Donald Trump is asked to comment on my opinion that he is a pompous, overbearing, ignorant windbag who lusts for attention the way a meth-addicted prostitute lusts for his next fix.

And to use an analogy from my profession, the media acts as an unwashed Petri dish that allows this particular nasty virus to thrive. Perhaps a less incendiary way of me putting this would be to say--

Tom Friedan

Well, Ebola is scary. And it's understandable that with a deadly disease, people are concerned. But the plain truth is that we can stop Ebola. We know how to control it-- hospital infection control and stopping it at the source in Africa.

Mike Pesca

So that last part, that's what Doctor Friedan did say. It was probably smarter than what I should have said. Anyway, that guy is too important to pick media fights with Donald Trump. He already has one seemingly unstoppable plague to wrestle with.

Ira Glass

If words really were magic, in all fairness, Donald Trump would vanish from the Earth in a puff of smoke after that. The podcast is called The Gist, Mike Pesca. It's free. It's daily five days a week. Find it at slate.com or anywhere you find your podcast.

[MUSIC - "DONALD TRUMP" BY LICH]

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Special thanks today to Phil Kearney, Mark, Susan, and Doug Tompkins, and Annie Mac. Jake Halpburn's book about debt that we talked about at the beginning of the program is called Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld. You can read an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. The book is going to be published in October, but you can pre-order it right now.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Torey Malatia, who says it is all right if people want to bring their dogs to the office.

Torey Malatia

You just have to train them right and give them pants.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "ABRA-CA-DABRA, BY THE DEFRANCO FAMILY]

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. For the internet version of this episode, we did not bleep curse words. Those words remain intact in this transcript.