Transcript

88:

Numbers
Transcript

Originally aired 01.02.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/88

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Andrea was working at her first temp job at Bank of America in San Francisco, learning how to use the computers. And she made this chart with Microsoft Excel. It's very professional-looking. The line that goes across the bottom of the chart lists the years between 1987 and 1997. The left side of this chart, what you might call the y-axis lists numbers of people, going from 0 to 7. There's a legend, and the title at the top of the chart, "My Love Life: A 10-Year Span."

It's basically all the people Andrea made out with or slept with over 10 years. And once you laid it out this way, in numbers, it's hard not to start thinking about your stats. Like the huge jump she made in 1994 three to seven.

Andrea

So seven was my first jump. That was definitely my highest year, but then '95 followed up with a four, which was higher than all the previous year. So I thought at that time that I'd broken a barrier and that it was just going to be smooth from here on out. And then '96, I hit another high with five. So '97 is unexplainable in terms of trends of the chart.

Ira Glass

In '97, her number is 0.

Andrea

I think what explains it is I spent the first six months living at home with my mom.

Ira Glass

Then there are the dramatic increases in 1994 and 1996-- very big jumps. Andrea's phrase for what happened in those years? Her slutty years abroad.

Andrea

Well, definitely leaving the country brings my numbers up immediately. Me and David Hasselhoff do better in Europe.

Ira Glass

So it all started as this funny thing to just try on the computer, kill time with, but as Andrea looked at the chart, it was actually kind of reassuring. First of all, it made her look like such a player, which she wasn't really feeling at the time.

And the second thing was that, when you reduce people to just numbers, everything that was painful about your relationships with them-- it just vanishes. The person you kissed who never called you again. The really embarrassing person you'd rather just forget ever happened. It's all gone. The trauma's gone.

Andrea

It is just numbers. Looking at it this way, the people totally go away. I can't look at a year and think, oh, that was that person, or whatever. Because so many of these things on their own, I would normally classify as failures. They were rejections or something painful. But when I look at it in the context of all this, now these are all my scores. These are my successes. So it's a way to turn things around, I guess.

Ira Glass

This is the thing about numbers. They're easier to deal with than feelings, than the thousand ambiguous and difficult things that happen in life, real life. And so today on our program, we bring you stories of people who have tried to take reality, take emotional situations, take things that never should be expressed in numbers, and render them in numbers. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

On today's program, Act One, the story of one couple who decided to put a corporate annual report about their own relationship. Act Two, Paint by Numbers, two artists who decided what to paint by hiring a polling firm to ask people what they wanted to see in art. Act Three, When Days are Numbered. Jerry Davidson of Worcester, Massachusetts has been keeping a list of everything he has done since 1955. What does not make it onto the list turns out to be a lot bigger than what does. Act Four, The Salesman. A Husband tries to market himself to his own wife using all the tools of corporate brand marketing. Act Five, Break It Down, calculating the cost of love. Stay with us.

Act One. Corporate Culture.

Ira Glass

Act One.

D. Travers Scott

It was called "Bi-Annual Report on Status of Relationship with Significant Other."

Ira Glass

And so why would any couple choose to analyze their relationship using the tools and graphs and methods of a corporate annual report?

D. Travers Scott

I think because it seemed the most emotionless. I mean, it seemed the most opposite of a relationship.

Ira Glass

So once a week, for half a year, Travers Scott and his boyfriend, David Eckard, sat down and separately filled out questionnaires to measure the status of their relationship. They tried to be as scientific as possible. They had six categories of evaluation: efficiency, feedback, profitability-- which is what they each got out of the relationship-- security, mergers-- which was their jargony word for their sex life-- and loyalty, which in their case meant brand loyalty to the relationship.

D. Travers Scott

Yeah, how hemmed in you felt by the relationship. Did you fantasize about being single? Did you have sex outside the relationship? Things like that. Most of the structural things you see applied to relationships are very touchy-feely, escape from intimacy, co-dependency, psychobabble kind of stuff. And I wanted to use something that didn't have that quite Montessori warm, fuzzy, huggy feel to it, but something that was very cold and removed. And so I wanted to take that a step further in applying it to people, and apply it to a relationship, apply something that cold to love and see what would happen.

Ira Glass

And does that work?

D. Travers Scott

Oh, no, it's completely futile. It doesn't work at all. I mean, in all these pieces, we were always trying to apply the most antithetical structures of scientific, masculine, scientific method, hyper-analytical, to the most irrational, chaotic, emotional things in our lives.

Ira Glass

And you're saying it doesn't work? Why? What falls apart? What do you lose?

D. Travers Scott

Because it's chaos. It has benefits, but you have to fudge the science a lot. You're trying to quantify things that are really hard to quantify. Like one thing that happened was when we were separated, and we were rating the sexual area, some weeks I would give us a really, really high rating because I was thinking about Dave a lot sexually, and I was having all these warm, fuzzy thoughts and everything. So I gave it a really high rating. Dave gave it a complete zero because we were separated and we weren't having sex, therefore it was a zero.

Ira Glass

But it does get you into that problem of, how do you even quantify how much love is occurring between people?

D. Travers Scott

Yeah. I mean, it was easy with things like the phrase "I love you." I could easily count how many times that happened. But trying to determine exactly what was a non-verbal expression of love. Like, I would count gifts, things like that, but do you count an affectionate look? Do you count a punch in the shoulder?

Ira Glass

And how would you count something like, OK, you're at dinner and he reaches over and just puts his hand on your hand as you talk and then takes it away a moment later?

D. Travers Scott

That would be a debatable non-verbal expression. But then, that gets really hard, because if you count every instance of physical expression, is that every single time someone touches you? How do you determine between, is he squeezing your hand because he loves you so much or is he squeezing your hand because you're saying something really stupid and embarrassing?

Ira Glass

So while you were doing this particular project, did you feel that things just got extremely self-conscious in a way that wasn't perhaps the most desirable outcome?

D. Travers Scott

It did at first. In the first few months especially, it was very self-conscious. And I knew Dave was keeping track himself of how many times he was saying "I love you," and things like that. But after a while, you just forget about it and it just becomes a habit. Just every day, OK, how many times did this happen, how many times did that happen? I had a little notebook stuck in my jacket pocket that I'd whip out like a irritating reporter or something. "You said I love you," and I'd be scribbling it down. And people would kind of glare at me. It made me look really, really insecure, I think.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I mean, I've got to say, if I were involved with somebody and I knew that they were counting how many times I said "I love you," I would feel constrained to keep my average up. Do you think people are unconsciously counting anyway?

D. Travers Scott

Oh, yeah, I think so. Especially, in a relationship, I think the longer it goes on, you have that little-- begrudging everything from, I'm always the one that makes the coffee in the morning, to changing the toilet paper roll to, you never spontaneously-- you don't bring me flowers anymore. I think there's always a tally going on in the back the head, and it helps to let it out, even if it's completely irrational and petty.

[MUSIC -- "YOU DON'T BRING ME FLOWERS" BY BARBRA STREISAND AND NEIL DIAMOND]

Ira Glass

Travers Scott. His latest novel is called One of These Things is Not Like The Other.

Act Two. Paint By Numbers.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Paint by Numbers. In today's program, we're looking stories of people using numbers in ways that they just should not, which brings us to Alex Melamid, who's using numbers to make art.

Alex Melamid

You need to believe, you know? And we were raised, or our culture is we tend to believe in numbers. Numbers are innocent. They're not involved. They're not engaged. They don't cheat on us. They're not politicized, let's say. They're just pure, beautiful, and truthful.

Ira Glass

And so, with that premise, Alex Melamid and his artistic collaborator, Vitaly Komar, commissioned a professional market research firm to survey the public about what they wanted to see in art. And then they took the data and they used it to paint what the greatest number of people asked for. The resulting artwork is a landscape, a hill on the left, a tree on the right, a big lake, blue sky, some deer, a family-- the stats said that audiences wanted to see groups of people in a painting-- and George Washington.

Alex Melamid

Because they wanted some political figures. And that was at our discretion, so we decided that who was a better political figure than George Washington for this country?

Ira Glass

Melamid and Komar did the surveys in 14 countries and made paintings for each one.

Alex Melamid

First of all, we found out that people like a landscape, and blue is the favorite color of the people.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I have the statistics in front of me. It says 88% of Americans favor outdoor scenes. 44% prefer blue in their paintings.

Alex Melamid

Right. And they like wild animals. They like mountains and water. And this came as a shock. We thought, oh, my god, stupid Americans, what do they want, but then having this poll made in different countries, all the countries, with only one exception, wanted the same, a blue landscape.

Ira Glass

What was the country that didn't want the same?

Alex Melamid

It was one country, which was Holland, the Netherlands. And they preferred abstract art to traditional art.

Ira Glass

What do you make of that?

Alex Melamid

Oh, my god, I wish I'm a philosopher, so I can make something out of that. But they live in a very beautiful country, and a museum with full of realists and nice and beautiful art. Maybe they're tired of it.

Ira Glass

They don't need beautiful painting.

Alex Melamid

Or conduction of blue landscapes. That may be the explanation.

Ira Glass

When you create works of art from polling even when they create movie endings from polling and other things like that, and create ideas for TV shows by polling people, we get a lot of art in various forms that comes from a perception of a market, a perception of what people will buy. I wonder if it's one of these things where-- creating art this way from polling, you can get competent art, but you're not going to get anything that's really inspiring, anything that really grabs your heart.

Alex Melamid

You talk in cliches. I'm sorry. But it's the other cliche, you know. We have a cliche of polls and a cliche of heart. In one, of course, it's polling people, asking them constantly, and we don't believe that art can be produced this way, really. Good art, let's say. But on the other hand, we have this image of this crazy artist with a lot of hair, torturing canvas, whatever. As cliche, as utopian, let's say, as the first idea. So you prefer this cliche to the other cliche.

Ira Glass

In 1996, Melamid and Komar expanded the work. Teaming up with a musician named Dave Soldier, they surveyed music audiences. Favorite length of song? 60% of respondents said 3 to 10 minutes. Favorite topic for a song? 36% said a story, 32% said love. Most hated topic for a song? 33% said holidays, 10% said religion.

Soldier took the data and produced two songs, one with all the things that people said they most hate in a song-- that is 21 minutes long, that song-- and one with all the qualities that respondents said they wanted most in a song. Dave Soldier joined us in the studio.

Dave Soldier

American popular music is almost what people want to hear in the most popular song. If you ask people, what are your favorite instruments, and add up the seven or eight favorite instruments, they are those that are used in conventional radio top-40-type pop music-- guitar, piano, bass drums, synthesizer.

Ira Glass

Let's play a little bit of this so people can hear a little bit.

[MUSIC -- MOST WANTED SONG]

Yeah, I mean, that sounds just like any pop song that could be on the radio.

Dave Soldier

Well, that's pretty much, apparently, what people wanted. The favorite vocal styles are low male and low female, rock/R&B.

Ira Glass

Low male, low female?

Dave Soldier

Yeah. They like low female voices more than they like high female voices. In fact, the high female voice is the second-least-preferred voice. The least-preferred voices of all are kid's voices.

[MUSIC -- MOST WANTED SONG]

Ira Glass

Dave, can I ask you to talk about the least-popular song? What did people hate the most, and what did you have to fit into this song?

Dave Soldier

There was quite a diversity in hatred. There were a lot of hated instruments. They're all personal favorites of mine, of course. The bagpipe, the accordion, the harp, the organ, the banjo, the tuba, for instance. We had to make sure that all of those were in there.

Ira Glass

And when it comes to most unwanted vocal styles, you found opera and rap were the two most unwanted vocal styles. And so what you did is that, in this song that you put together, you have an opera singer rapping.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

Dave Soldier

You see, if only 10% of people like opera and only 10% of people like rap, and say these two categories don't overlap very well, that means that if you put both of them in there, only 1% of people will be left who can still listen to the piece. So we put everything in there that people don't like. For instance, some people detest cowboy music. So we have the opera singer singing rap about cowboys.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

People tend to like moderate tempos-- that is, the speed of the music, how fast it sounds. So we're sure that we're going to have something that people really dislike if it, say, features a bagpipe, an opera singer singing about cowboys, and a children's choir sung very, very slowly.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

Ira Glass

Can I ask the two of you-- can you listen to either of these songs in your own home?

Dave Soldier

Well, actually I've grown to love both of them. I feel kind of guilty.

Alex Melamid

You know, I got a lot of people who said they really love this music.

Dave Soldier

And musicians, in particular, will call me and say, I just heard the new record. I fell asleep during the most favorite and I loved the least favorite.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I kind of love the least favorite too. Why do you think we're all going for the least favorite?

Alex Melamid

Because it's a minority. The least favorite is the least favorite. It's not hated music. It's just a small percentage of people [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Dave Soldier

I guess the obvious thing is we like to think of ourselves as being in this elite category.

Ira Glass

That is not why we like that song. We don't like because we think of ourselves as being-- we don't like the children's choir coming in because we thinks of ourselves as a cultural elite.

Alex Melamid

Because it's done by the poll and polls are always right.

Ira Glass

That is not why we love it.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

Here's the whole thing, Alex and Dave, is that in your attempt to just go straight by the numbers, what you've done is you've accidentally ended up with the lonely genius creating a real work of art. You've actually stumbled into the other model.

Dave Soldier

I think I'd argue that with you.

Ira Glass

Alex?

Alex Melamid

Accidentally maybe. No accidentally, not accidentally, incidentally, but we get it.

Dave Soldier

But then we owe our genius to the people, just like all geniuses. We're finding what's in our culture and channeling the people's will.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

Ira Glass

Do you think that there are some things that should just stay unquantified, some things we should not try to put into numbers?

Alex Melamid

You know, we have to have a criteria at any expense. If numbers, let it be numbers. But we need to know. We need to have a conviction. We need to have a common belief among all of us, a common faith. And right now, the common faith is in numbers, and let it be this way.

Ira Glass

Because it's better than nothing.

Alex Melamid

It's much better than nothing.

[MUSIC -- LEAST WANTED SONG]

Act Three. When Days Are Numbered.

Ira Glass

Act Three, When Days are Numbered. By describing some things in numbers, in data, it usually means that there are other things that we are choosing not to quantify and not to look at at all. Adam Davidson is an economics correspondent for NPR. He co-reports some of the economic coverage we do here on our show, and does the Planet Money podcast. But years ago, he did a story for us about his uncle Jerry. His uncle Jerry spends a lot of time gathering data and putting it into lists-- a list of sports scores going back decades, a list of all the people he has ever telephoned, a list of all the sales at the pharmacy he works at since he began working there. A list of all the lists. And then one list, the list that he values more than any other list, the list documenting his daily life. Here's Adam.

Adam Davidson

My uncle Jerry's lists are something I've heard about my whole life, and I finally decided to find out what they're all about and to get to know him better. Jerry's always been quiet. He lives alone right near where he grew up, my dad's baby brother, in Worcester, Massachusetts. He's 52. He gets a monthly SSI check and he has a two-day-a-week job at a big CVS pharmacy. He told me that he's written down everything he's done, every day, since 1955 when he was 10 years old.

Jerry Davidson

My brother Jack told me Sunday, he said, remember, I told you years ago them lists were going to be worth nothing? I told him a thing. I said, look, I don't know what this is going to come to, but something's going to come out of this. I have this funny feeling.

Adam Davidson

And what do you think that is?

Jerry Davidson

I don't know. It looks something good. It's going to make me happy. I know that. It's going to make me very, very, very happy. I know that.

Adam Davidson

Jerry always carries a scrap of paper in his shirt pocket or in his wallet, and he writes down everywhere he goes and everyone he talks to on the phone over the course of the day. At the end of the day, he takes everything he's written on the scrap paper and copies it onto one of those desk calendars where each day has its own page and the whole year sits on a little plastic stand with two narrow metal rings in the middle. He checks and re-checks every item. Only when he knows everything was copied properly does he put a check or an OK at the bottom of the desk calendar page. Once he's done that, right before he goes to sleep, that day is complete.

Jerry Davidson

This is yesterday.

Adam Davidson

That's sitting on the TV?

Jerry Davidson

Yes, sitting on my television. That's what I did all day yesterday.

Adam Davidson

Wow, that's a long day.

Jerry Davidson

Yeah, it sure was. Saturday, December 13, 1997. Sunny and cold. Honey Farms checked twice. Marie call Jerry and Sheryl twice. Check once. Cambridge eye doctors, check. Walgreens, Lincoln Street--

Adam Davidson

The check marks indicate how many times he's done something. Every event gets at least one check, so if he goes to the store five times, that's five checks. Every event gets its own line, and each day's list is about eight or nine lines long. One of the strange things about the list is that he always refers to himself in the third person. He writes Jerry, or his initials, JD. The words I or me never appear anywhere in these diaries. And he's got this elaborate code.

Jerry Davidson

See, I put a star on the top of the thing. That means I had a great day. Plus I write in different color pens. Sometimes I write in black, and sometimes I write in blue. Blue means I'm very happy. Red means a semi-good day. Black means it's a bad day. Not a very bad day, but just a bad day.

Adam Davidson

In the pages we looked at, some days would have two or three blue items and the rest would be black. Other days, everything in the morning was black, while the afternoon was better-- it had the red and the blue. The thing is, even after he explained all of these codes and pen colors, I couldn't understand the diaries at all. No one could except for Jerry. He uses his own abbreviations.

Jerry Davidson

See, it says HFPLOT. I went to Honey Farms, Pleasant. And I was in the lot. PAS. That's Phyllis Ashland's sister's house. Let's see. S means sex. Or S-X, I put sometimes. [PHONE RINGS] Hello? Hey. Doing what?

Adam Davidson

Jerry's girlfriend Sheryl called and they talked for a long time.

Jerry Davidson

Did you sleep good last night? Lucky you. I didn't sleep at all. Nope, getting very lonely. Do you care? I'm just kidding with you. Are we going to be hanging together tonight? I want to be with you, stupid. Jesus. The only thing I want to be. All right. Yes, dear. Bye. Sheryl, Sheryl, Sheryl, Sheryl.

Adam Davidson

What are you doing now?

Jerry Davidson

I just put another check. That's two checks for her.

Adam Davidson

See, that to me is so funny, that you just had this really emotional conversation with her and all you did was put another check next to her name.

Jerry Davidson

Yeah, because I keep it all in here, what she says to me.

Adam Davidson

Jerry said he doesn't like to write about his feelings. That's why he just put a check. He doesn't want to write how he felt about talking to Sheryl or anyone else. He said it's nobody's business. Of course, that's the most interesting part. That's exactly what I wanted to know. Why was one phone call from Cheryl written in black, while another was in blue, and what happened that one day a McDonald's that made him put it down in red?

My family doesn't understand Jerry's lists. We tease him about them. At Thanksgiving, Jerry had this big box with hundreds of pens, blue, black, red. My dad said, Jerry, why not just keep a few of them and throw the rest away. Jerry got angry. he said he'd saved those pens his whole life, and he needed them for his list.

Jerry Davidson

It's like a hobby, but everybody says it's stupid. But I don't think it's stupid.

Adam Davidson

How did you start doing these lists? Do you remember when you started?

Jerry Davidson

I don't know why. I don't know. My father maybe got me into it, because he used to write down things too, when he had appointments.

Adam Davidson

And he doesn't like you doing lists.

Jerry Davidson

He thinks it's a waste of time. He says, why do you write down everything? And I said, well, I just like to. You write down appointments when you have business meetings, don't you? He said, yeah, but I'm a businessman. You're not. [PHONE RINGS] Can you pause that for a second?

Adam Davidson

It was Sheryl again. When Jerry hung up, he took out his scrap paper and put another check next to her name.

When we were talking, Jerry said to me, I hate the past. But in fact he's surrounded himself with the past. When you walk in his apartment, it's crammed with stuff. There are piles of newspapers all over the place that he uses to keep track of his sports scores, dozens of boxes of papers, old clothes, his children's toys from the '70s, store receipts from years ago, memos from jobs he's long since left. He keeps the answering machine cassettes with every message he's ever gotten. His history is around him all the time.

Jerry Davidson

I don't think anybody else could survive what I went through a lot. Divorces, losing my kids, two marriages. I thought that was the end of my world when I finally got divorced. That is hard. I think that is worse than a death to go through. It is. It is hard. You never went through it, but it's hard. It's hard.

It's just a weird thing when you go to court for a divorce. The wife says everything of what she says. Then she leaves the room. Then you say everything that you want to say. And the judge called both of us back and he says, granted. But I had nobody there to fall back onto when I get divorced. That really bothered me today. The day I got divorced in my two divorces, I just had nobody there for me. I just came home and slept.

Adam Davidson

On the phone, you were saying that you've wanted to tell your father-- you said, I could have been somebody because of these lists. What did you mean by that?

Jerry Davidson

My life story. Mostly my life story is what I did. It's like the diary of Anne Frank. Mine would be the diary of Jerry.

Adam Davidson

Why do you think people like reading the diary of Anne Frank?

Jerry Davidson

Well, it's interesting, because she wrote different things about what she did in her life and all that. It'd be just like my story. But I think mine would be the best-seller, because I had more interesting things to do with my life. I went to the zoo, to California, everything. England, I went to England. I went everywhere. I came a long way, really. I came a long way. And I'm just a survivor. Your father used to say, that's all I am. A survivor. I live by myself. Let's see, what is it? 19 years already. Didn't have a wife or nothing, for 19 years. I survive out there anyway.

Adam Davidson

I don't think Jerry would put it this way, but when I look at his lists, I think he does them because they give him something to do every day. And then seeing every day written down like that, page after page in perfect order, his life seems less empty, less lonely. The lists prove he's spent time with people who care about him, and he's been places, and he's done things.

Jerry Davidson

Holy mackerel. It's like a blizzard. Can you believe that? It's snowing like heck down here. I don't believe this. See, I have to write that down in the book, say it snowed. That's amazing.

Ira Glass

Coming up, applying numbers to love with incredible success. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Four. The Salesman.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, and invite a variety of writers and performers and reporters to take a whack at that theme. Today's program, using numbers where they should not be used. We've arrived at Act Four of our program, The Salesman. Will Powers works for a marketing firm called Brand Solutions in Seattle. And his boss wanted everybody in the firm to understand better the principles of brand loyalty and how to achieve it. And so the boss had Will and the other staffers do this exercise where they had to market themselves to someone they knew, using all the tools of modern brand marketing. Will chose his wife.

Will Powers

You know, really, why not my wife? She's probably the closest person to me, and I think, as you'll see later on, as I discuss, it was a great opportunity to learn a little bit more about that customer.

Ira Glass

It's so strange to hear you say that word

Will Powers

I know. It is funny. But it's really interesting-- obviously, I don't think of my wife as a customer. I dated my wife since we were 15, and we went to the same college, and we got married right after college, and we've been married for five years. And when I went home to do this exercise with her, I was like, oh, there's nothing she's going to tell me that I don't know. I know her inside and out.

Ira Glass

All right, well, let's talk about the process you went through.

Will Powers

I had my wife come up with her attributes and what's important to her within the product.

Ira Glass

This is what she's looking for in her husband.

Will Powers

Exactly. She came up with honest, funny, forgiving, patient, understanding, strong, protective, empathetic, loving, and gentle. And really, to take it the next step further, I said, well, these are really great attributes, but tell me how I can act upon these. How can I, the organization providing the service, please you? And it's really saying, where can I find ways to better provide the service to you?

Ira Glass

Now, if you actually working with a real firm that was really selling a product, this would be more or less the equivalent of focus-grouping the customers.

Will Powers

Exactly. Exactly.

Ira Glass

You'd get a bunch of customers. You'd get them into a room. You'd focus-group them on what is it that they really want from the company.

Will Powers

Exactly. That's exactly right. Me, being the product, how can I show you that I'm loving and gentle and understanding and empathetic, et cetera. What would be a way that I could follow through on these? So she actually gave me examples. You know, when you hold my hand, you make me laugh, to take time out of the day to make sure I'm happy and OK, hang up your clothes after a business trip, try to stay healthy, work hard, work for our future, work at our relationship, examples like that.

So what I said-- and this what we usually do in organizations. We do a brand ladder. An example would be, we work with some major restaurant chains. And they might list something like, it's clean. And that's a very functional attribute. Well, OK, if they're concentrating on that and it's clean, how does that make you feel? Well, that makes me feel comfortable at the restaurant. OK, when you're comfortable at the restaurant, how does that make you feel? Well, it makes me feel that I can forget my problems. Well, then when you forget your problems, how does that make you feel? Well, then I can concentrate on other aspects of my life, like my children. So we go from very small and functional, from clean, to concentrating on children and full fulfillment.

What I said is, if it works for an organization, once again, why couldn't it work for me selling my product? So after my wife listed her examples, I pulled one out, and I said, OK, Laura. Well, picking out my clothes, let's say, when I come home and I throw my garment bag on the bed and I'm supposed to hang up my clothes-- sometimes I don't. I just dump it out and usually I'm exhausted. But I said, let's just start with that. Let's say, if I pick up my clothes, what does that do for you? What is that going to give you?

And she goes well, really, what that does for me is that confirms teamwork, that we're a partnership in this relationship. And I said, OK, that's great. And knowing that we're a team, how does that make you feel? Or what does that give you? And she goes, well, when I know I'm a team and you're helping me out and we're really working as a team together, that leads to a strong relationship.

Ira Glass

It makes her feel like she has a strong relationship.

Will Powers

Yeah, exactly, in that she can rely on me. And I said, well, that's fantastic. What do you when you have a strong relationship? How does that make you feel? And she goes, well, that is total love and total reassurance. And I said, wow, that's really great. So I went from something very simple, as picking up clothes from my garment bag when I come home from a business trip, very functional, to total love and strength.

And another example was calling me. And I'm usually pretty good about that when I travel, or even when I'm at work, calling her.

Ira Glass

You used to call her during the day, during the work day?

Will Powers

Yeah, just to see how she's doing and stuff. And maybe some days I would forget or I'd be busy. But now I make it a point, because obviously she's a customer and she's viewing my product-- that's important to her. And as a customer, I know I'm going to satisfy her that way. The same with coming home and hanging up the garment bag and the clothes within it.

Ira Glass

You know what really strikes me as you talk about this, one of the things about it that I think is interesting, is it makes you really think about how often do any of us go to the people in our lives and ask, are you getting from me what you want?

Will Powers

Exactly. And really, in a nutshell, that's exactly what this accomplished. Are you satisfied with the product?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Before you actually went through this process with her, had she always-- she would say every now and then, you shouldn't leave your stuff, your garment bag, you shouldn't just leave it sitting around, I want you to pick it up. I mean, she had said this before?

Will Powers

Yeah. Obviously, these aren't really big earth-shattering--

Ira Glass

No, I know. But to me, that's the interesting thing. Why was it so different doing it in this context? Why is it in this context you got the message, whereas before you didn't?

Will Powers

Well, I think in the past I've come home and it's always been just something kind of under the breath of, you know, I would appreciate if you would have called me, or something to that effect. And I'm like, oh, yeah, OK, next time I promise I'll try to remember. But I think the reason why this was so powerful is we actually sat down across from each other, and it was just us, totally focused on each other. There was no other distractions.

And she actually wrote it down. This is what's important to me. It's almost very elementary, spelling it out.

Ira Glass

You know what it's almost like? There's the way that women talk about certain emotional issues and there's the way that men talk about certain emotional issues, and what you and your wife sort of invented was a guy's way to talk about stuff that women normally want to talk about.

Will Powers

Yeah. That's a good point.

Ira Glass

It's like she spoke to you in guy language.

Will Powers

I guess so. Because of my understanding of the organizational identity model, and because I could put it in business terms-- maybe you're right. Maybe that's how I connected with it and the light bulb went on.

Ira Glass

It's funny, because I think there are certain things about our own lives that we are hesitant to quantify. Do you know what I mean? And what you've done essentially in this example is that you've really tried to quantify-- what could be more delicate than a person's relationship in a marriage.

Will Powers

Well, like I said, I wanted to do this with my wife, because my wife is the most important person in the world to me. And I place my wife above anything else. And she is the number-one customer in my organization. And I have to make sure that she's 100% satisfied and happy with the product.

[MUSIC -- "ANYWAY YOU WANT ME" BY ELVIS PRESLEY]

Act Five. Break It Down.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Break It Down. We end our program today with this attempt to quantify what love is, a short story by Lydia Davis, read by Matt Malloy. A quick warning to listeners before we begin. This story mentions the existence of sex. Nothing very explicit, but the fact that it does exist.

Matt Malloy

He's sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him. He's trying to break it down. He says, I'm breaking it all down. The ticket was $600. And after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just 10 days. Say, $80 a day. No, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day. On the average, that's $100 a shot. And each time it lasted maybe two or three hours, so that would be anywhere from $33 to $50 an hour, which is expensive.

Though, of course, that wasn't all that went on, because we were together almost all day long. And she would keep looking at me, and every time she looked at me, that was worth something. And she smiled at me, and didn't stop talking and singing. Something I said, she would sail into it, a snatch, for me. She would be gone from me a little ways, but smiling too, and tell me jokes. I loved it, but didn't exactly know what to do about it, just smiled back at her and felt slow next to her, just not quick enough.

So she talked and touched me on the shoulder and the arm. She kept touching and stayed close to me. You're with each other all day long, and it keeps happening, the touches and smiles. And it adds up. It builds up and you know where you'll be that night. You're talking and every now and then you think about it. No, you don't think, you just feel it as kind of a destination, what's coming up after you leave wherever you are all evening.

And you're happy about it, and you're planning it all. Not it your head, really. Somewhere inside your body, or all through your body. It's all mounting up and coming together so that when you get in bed, you can't help it. It's a real performance. I mean, it all pours out, but slowly. You go easy until you can't anymore, or you hold back the whole time. You hold back and touch the edges of everything. You edge around it till you have to plunge in and finish it off.

And when you're finished, you're too weak to stand. But after a while you have to go to the bathroom, and you stand. Your legs are trembling. You hold onto the door frames. There's a little light coming in through the window. You can see your way in and out, but you can't really see the bed.

So it's really not $100 a shot, because it goes on all day, from the start when you wake up and feel her body next to you. You don't miss a thing, not a thing, of what's going on next to you. Her leg, her arm, her shoulder, her face, that good skin. I've felt other good skin, but this skin is just the edge of something else. And you're going to start going. I mean, no matter how much you crawl all over each other, it won't be enough. And when your hunger dies down a little bit, then you start to think about how much you love her, and then that starts you off again. And her face-- and you look over at her face, and you can't believe how you got there, and how lucky, and it's all still a surprise. And it never stops. I mean, even after it's over, it never stops being a surprise.

It's more like you have a good 16 or 18 hours a day of this going on. Even when you're not with her, it's still going on. I mean, it's good to be away from her because it's going to be so good to get back to her, you know. It's still there in you. And you can't go off and look at some old street or some old painting without feeling it in your body, and a few things that happened the day before that don't mean much by themselves or wouldn't mean much if you weren't having this thing together. But you can't forget, and it's all inside of you all the time. So it's more like, say, 16 into $100 would be $6 an hour, which isn't too much.

And then it really keeps going on while you're asleep, even though you're probably dreaming about something else. A building, maybe. I don't know. I kept dreaming every night, almost, about this building, because I'd spend a lot of every morning in this old stone building. And when I closed my eyes, I would see these cool spaces and have this peace inside me. I would see the bricks of the floor and the stone arches and the space, the emptiness between, like a kind of dark frame around what I could see beyond, a garden. And this space was like stone too, because of the coolness of it and the gray shadow, that kind of luminous shade that was glowing in the light of the sun falling beyond the arches. And there's also this great height of the ceiling. All this was in my mind all the time though I didn't know it until I close my eyes.

I'm asleep, and I'm not dreaming about her, but she's lying next to me and I wake up enough times in the night to remember she's there and notice, say, once she was lying on her back but now she's curled around me. I look at her closed eyes. I want to kiss her eyelids. I want to feel that soft skin under my lips but I don't want to disturb her. I don't want to see her frown as though, in her sleep, she's forgotten who I am and feels that just something is bothering her. And so I just look at her and hold onto it all, these times when I'm watching over her sleep, and she's next to me and isn't away from me the way she will be later. I want to stay awake all night just to go on feeling that. But I can't. I fall asleep again, though I'm speaking lightly, still trying to hold onto it.

But it isn't over when it ends. I mean, it goes on after it's all over. She's still inside you like a sweet liqueur. You're filled with her. Everything about her has kind of bled into you-- her voice, her smell, the way her body moves. It's all inside of you, at least for awhile after.

Then you begin to lose it, and I'm beginning to lose it. You're afraid of how weak you are, that you can't get her all back into you again, and now the whole thing is going to be out of your body, and it's more in your mind than in your body. The pictures come to you one by one, and you look at them. Some of them last longer than others.

You were together in this very white clean place, a coffee house, having breakfast together. And the place is so white that against it you can see her clearly, her blue eyes, her smile, the colors of clothes, even the print of the newspaper she's reading when she's not looking up at you. The light brown and red and gold of her hair when she's got her head down reading. The brown coffee, the brown rolls, all against the white table and those white plates and silver urns and silver knives and spoons, and against that quiet of the sleepy people in that room sitting alone at their tables with just chinking and clattering of spoons and cups and saucers. And some hushed voices, her voice now and then rising and falling.

The pictures come to you and you have to hope they won't lose their life too fast and dry up, though you know they will, and that you'll also forget some of what happened, because already you're turning up little things that you nearly forgot.

We were in bed, and she asked me, do I seem fat to you? And I was surprised because she didn't seem too worry about herself at all in that way, and I guess I was reading into it that she did worry about herself, so I answered what I was thinking, and said stupidly that she had a very beautiful body, that her body was perfect. And I really meant it as an answer, but she said kind of sharply, that's not what I asked. And so I had to try to answer her again, exactly what she had asked.

And once she lay over against me, late at night, and she started talking, her breath in my ear, and she just went on and on and talked faster and faster. She couldn't stop, and I loved it. I just felt that all that life in her was running into me too. I had so little life in me. Her life, her fire, was coming into me in that hot breath in my ear. And I just wanted her to go on talking forever right there next to me, and I would go on living like that. I would be able to go on living, but without her-- I don't know.

Then you forget some of it all. Maybe most of it all. Almost all of it, in the end. And you work hard at remembering everything now, so you won't ever forget. But you can kill it too, even by thinking about it too much, though you can't help but thinking about it nearly all the time. And then when the pictures start to go, you start asking some questions, just little questions that sit in your mind without any answers. Like, why did she leave the light on when you came to bed one night, but it was off the next, but she had it on the night after that, and she had it off the last night? Why? And all the questions, little questions that nag at you like that.

And finally the pictures go and these dry little questions just sit there without any answers. And you're left with this large heavy pain in you that you try to numb by reading. Or you try to ease it by getting out into public places where there'll be people around you. But no matter how good you are at pushing that pain away, just when you think you're going to be all right for a little while, that you're safe, you're holding it off with all your strength and you're staying in some bare little numb spot of ground, then suddenly it will all come back. You'll hear a noise. Maybe it's a cat crying, or a baby, something else like her cry. You hear it and make that connection in a part of you you have no control over, and that pain comes back so hard that you're afraid, afraid of how you're going to fall back into it again. And you wonder-- no you're terrified at how you're ever going to climb out of it.

So it's not every hour of the day while it's happening. It's really for hours and hours every day after that, for weeks, though less and less. So that you could work out a ratio if you wanted. Maybe after six weeks, you're only thinking about it an hour or so in the day altogether, a few minutes here and there spread over, or a few and minutes here and there and a half an hour before you go to sleep. Or sometimes it all comes back and you stay awake half the night.

So when you add up all that, you've only spent maybe $3 an hour on it.

If you have to figure in the bad times too, I don't know. There weren't any bad times with her, though. Maybe there was one bad time, when I told her I loved her. I couldn't help it. This was the first time this had happened with her. Now I was half-falling in love with her, or maybe completely, if she'd let me. But she couldn't, or I couldn't completely, because it was all going to be so short, and other things too. And so I told her.

And I didn't know of any way to tell her first that she didn't have to feel that this was a burden, the fact that I loved her, or that she didn't have to feel the same about me or say the same back, that it was just that I had to tell her, that's all. Because it was bursting inside me, and saying it wouldn't even begin to take care of what I was feeling, really. I couldn't say anything of what I was feeling because there was so much. Words couldn't handle it and making love only made it worse, because then I wanted words badly but they were no good, no good at all.

But I told her anyway. I was lying on top of her in her hands were up by her head and my hands were on hers and our fingers were locked, and there was a little light on her face from the window, but I couldn't see her. And I was afraid to say it, but I had to say it, because I wanted her to know. It was the last night. I had to tell her then or I'd never have another chance, and I just said, before you go to sleep-- I have to tell you before you go to sleep that I love you.

And immediately, right away after, she said, I love you too. And it sounded to me as if she didn't mean it, a little flat. But then it usually sounds flat when somebody says, I love you too, because they're just saying it back even if they do mean it. And the problem is that I'll never know if she meant it. Or maybe someday she'll tell me whether she meant it or not, but there's no way to know now. And I'm sorry I did that. It was a trap I didn't mean to put her in. And I can see it was a trap, because if she hadn't said anything at all, that would have hurt me too, you know, as though she were taking something from me and just accepting it and not giving anything back. So she really had to. Even if just to be kind, she had to say it. And I don't really know now if she meant it.

Another bad time-- or it wasn't exactly bad but it wasn't easy either-- was when I had to leave. The time was coming, and I was beginning to tremble and feel empty, nothing in the middle of me, nothing inside, nothing to hold me up on my legs. And then it came. Everything was ready and I had to go. So it was just a kiss, a quick one, as though we were afraid of what might happen after a kiss. And she was almost wild then. And she reached up to a hook by the door and took an old shirt, a green and blue shirt from the hook and put it in my arms for me to take away. The soft cloth was full of her smell.

And then we stood there close together looking at this piece of paper she had in her hand. And I didn't lose any of it. I was holding it tight that last minute or two, because this was it. We'd come to the end of it. Things always change, so this was really it. Over.

Maybe it works out all right. Maybe you haven't lost for doing it. I don't know. No, really, I mean, sometimes when you think of it, you feel like a prince really. You feel just like a king. And other times you're afraid. You're afraid not all the time, but now and then, of what it's going to do to you. It's hard to know what to do with it now.

Walking away I looked back once, and the door was still open. I could see her standing far back in the dark of the room. I could only really see her white face still looking out at me, and her white arms.

I guess you get to a point where you look at that pain as if it were there in front of you three feet away lying in a box, an open box in a window somewhere. It's hard and cold like a bar of metal. You just look at it there and say, all right. I'll take it. I'll buy it. That's what it is. Because you know all about it, before you even go into this thing. You know the pain is part of the whole thing. And it isn't that we can say afterwards the pleasure was greater than the pain, and that's why you'd do it again. That has nothing to do it. You can't measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question really is, why doesn't the pain make you say, I won't do it again, when the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don't?

So I'm just thinking about it. How you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt.

Ira Glass

"Break It Down," by Lydia Davis, from her book of stories called Break It Down, read for us by actor Matt Malloy. Her latest book is called Varieties of Disturbance.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and me, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor for this show, Paul Tough. Music help today from John Connors. Our production manager is Seth Lind. Production help from PJ Vote. [ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS] Today's program was first broadcast all the way back in 1998.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who asks the This American Life staff this every single day.

Will Powers

How can I, the organization providing the service, please you?

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.