Transcript

92:

Leave the Mask On
Transcript

Originally aired 02.06.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

So Margy's a reporter, and she wanted to do a story about her dad. So she calls him up, asks him if he'd be willing to do it. They have a quick conversation. He says yes.

Margy Rochlin

But then he called me back. He called me back a couple of hours later. And he said that he wanted to talk to me about something. And I said, "Well, what?" And he said he wanted me to know that it completely moved him that I wanted to see him with all of his masks off. And I told him, "Well, I don't."

Ira Glass

Leave the mask on.

Margy Rochlin

Leave the mask on. It scared me a little bit.

Ira Glass

Margy's family is one of those families where everybody tells everything to everybody else all the time anyway. So the thought that her dad would now really let go was kind of daunting. There are just some things you do not want to know even about the people who you're close to. In those moments, when you hit that wall, you get this picture of them and this picture of yourself that is different than you see at any other time. And you have to choose. Do you want that new information or not?

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters to tackle that theme. Today on our show, Leave the Mask On, stories of those situations when somebody tries to tell you just a little bit more than you really want to know and when you have to decide what are you going to do. Act One, Father's Day, the story of Margy Rochlin, her dad, World War II, and what your kids make of you when you drop one life and start another in your 70s. Act Two, Mama, Can You Hear Me? in which Dan Savage, a man who makes his living writing a nationally syndicated sex advice column admits that there's one group of people he does not want to discuss sex with ever. And sadly for him, it's a group of people who happen to have his home phone number. Act Three, The Unmasking, a story of guys who wear real masks, real masks like superheroes, in their jobs as costumed wrestlers, and how much smaller they feel, how humiliated, when they have to take those masks off. Stay with us.

Act One. Father's Day.

Ira Glass

Act One, Father's Day. Well, one of the most unusual things that can happen as you age is to see a new side of somebody in your own family, somebody who you feel like you know backwards and forwards, somebody who you have known for decades. Writer Margy Rochlin had this experience recently with her father as he entered this new world that she never imagined that he could ever be part of.

Margy Rochlin

About four years ago, my father made an illegal right-hand turn and ended up at traffic school. At the beginning of the eight-hour course, a pretty, blond instructor asked that each class member stand up in front of the group and give his or her name and talk about the law they violated. This is what my father told me that he said.

Fred Rochlin

Look, my name is Fred Rochlin. I was born and raised near Nogales, Arizona. My parents had immigrated there from Russia. It was a border town--

Margy Rochlin

A couple of months before, he had taken a seminar from the famous monologist Spalding Gray called "True Stories: Autobiographical Storytelling." By the time he returned home, he'd accumulated a pocket full of addresses from the 12 or so professional actors that had also attended and a habit of quoting Spalding Gray. Spalding says, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry." Spalding says, "Go beyond the frame." Spalding says, "Where's the emotional charge?" Spalding says, "Exaggerate." My father told me that it was very important to "get your work out there."

Fred Rochlin

I was flunking out. Well, that December, the Japanese government saw fit to bomb Pearl Harbor. So next month, January, just two weeks before finals, I got very patriotic. And I enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Now, the Army--

Margy Rochlin

My father kept on like this for about 15 minutes. And then the instructor jumped up, began waving her arms in the air, and shouted at him that if he didn't stop talking and sit down, she was going to lose her job. She was swept back to her place at the back of the classroom by booing traffic violators who couldn't believe that the old guy with the thinning hair, the wrinkled khaki pants, and the white tennis shirt was the one that turned this exercise in forced contrition on its ear.

Fred Rochlin

And it wound up being kind of simple. It seemed like all the kids that were WASPs got sent off to pilot training. And then, kids with German or Scandinavian last names were sent to bombardier school. Mexican kids were given a choice between paratroops or infantry. And then there were the Jewish kids, what to do with them. Well, hell, there were only 10 of us. And every single one of us was sent to navigation school. See, our drill sergeant explained, "Look, everybody knows you Heebs are good with numbers. And all a navigator is is just a [BLEEP] flying accountant."

Margy Rochlin

About a quarter of an hour passed before my father came to the end of his story and walked back to his metal folding chair. Later, he told me that for a couple of seconds, there was only a stunned silence. Then, slowly, he said the class rose to their feet and gave him his first standing ovation.

It was nine years ago when my father abandoned the square world of architecture to his partners and retired. The first thing he did was rent a small studio near his house, set up a drafting table, and find himself a handful of jobs. It was around this time that he started showing up at my apartment unexpectedly. At least once a week, my doorbell would ring and there he'd be, standing with his tool box. He'd ask me if I had anything that needed fixing. Whenever he'd say this, he'd always have an uncomfortable look, like he was embarrassed. Until that time, I thought I had seen every kind of expression on my father's face. But back in those days, when he'd be standing there, there was something so vulnerable about him, it was almost as if I was looking at a stranger.

So I'd think of something that was broken, and he'd follow me up the steep flight of gray carpeted stairs to my house. And with each step, he'd shake off a little more of the uncertainty until, by the top of the stairs, he'd resemble my father again. Sometimes I'd wonder if I'd only imagined that he'd seem to be feeling a little bit lost.

If you were going to draw a timeline that showed the period before and after my father really got into the swing of retirement, the after part would have to begin with Spalding Gray's monologue workshop, because after that, nothing was quite the same again. Before I get too far ahead of myself, it would probably be appropriate to explain what lured my father to alternative theatre. But the truth is, I haven't a clue.

I can say that once I discovered that his dramatic sub-genre of choice was semi-autobiographical anecdotes from the 1940s, I found it a lot easier to get behind him 100%. He is an unpredictable man. As far as I'm concerned, he could have just as easily decided to appear naked onstage, wearing a beret, or reciting the speech of my nightmares, which would go something like this-- "My name is Fred Rochlin. My third and worst-behaved daughter is Margy Rochlin. Rarely was there an argument in our household that she wasn't at the heart of." And if this happened, I'd have to do a preemptive strike, getting my version of things out into the zeitgeist before he did. Let his act be spin control.

"Writing the One-Person Play," "Go Solo," "The Playwright's Kitchen Ensemble." These are the names of some of the classes that he took, titles that have an uncomplicated sound yet are somehow filled with hope. I can understand why he would thumb through the extension class syllabus and they would beckon to him. For all this, the first time I saw him perform, I was totally surprised what a different world he had become a part of. He was appearing in a group show at a tiny space on a dark side street in Santa Monica. To get in, you walked up this driveway, then into this dusty anteroom, then into this makeshift theater. And against one wall, there were wooden bleachers, splintery gangplanks that my aging relatives who came to support my father teetered along while I held my breath. There wasn't really a stage, just a painted concrete floor with a curtain behind it.

The show began. A couple of hairy men performed in drag so unbelievable that it was impossible to know if they'd just failed miserably at trying to pass themselves off as women, or if their disguises were intentionally for laughs. A skinny woman took a running jump and landed on her knees on a wheeled dolly and came whizzing in front of the audience to begin a rambling narrative about religion which culminated with her holding a giant picture frame in front of herself and doing a wriggling booty dance for the crowd. I can't imagine what my relatives were thinking.

If you skimmed your finger down the list of names on the program, you'd find my father at the very bottom. It said, "'Old Man in a Baseball Cap' by Fred Rochlin." An hour and a half later, he came out. He looked smaller to me, and he was squinting his eyes tightly. His voice sounded strange, like his, but more emphatic. He talked about being a navigator during World War II, of how he'd witnessed the miracle of childbirth by helping a squadron doctor named Connor deliver the baby of a 15-year-old Italian peasant girl.

Fred Rochlin

So Connor lifted up this gal's dress, but he couldn't get it past her belly, her swollen belly. So he reached into his bag, and he pulled out one of those blunt-nosed surgical scissors and went [RIP], and just ripped that rag right apart. Well, I was shocked. Look, I was very young. And although I'd had those usual teenage sexual forays in the backseat of a Chevy, really, I had never, ever seen a naked woman before.

And here was this woman, this 14 or 15-year-old woman, with this huge belly and these two tremendous breasts. And her skin, her skin was black and yellow and blue and purple and red and magenta, all blotchy. And Connor said, "Jesus Christ. I think this gal's got peritonitis. Rockets, we've got to do something. We've got to try to save the baby, may not be able to save the mother. You tell Mrs. Carafa to warm some water. We're going to have to do a Cesarean right here, right now. I'm going to make an incision right about here. And you start cutting her pubic hair." And I looked at that pubic hair. She had hair from her belly button, all over her belly, down her hips, down her thighs, all the way to her knees. It was just a mess of hair.

Margy Rochlin

Connor brought my dad there as a translator. He spoke Spanish, not Italian, but nobody seemed to care. The two of them lifted the girl onto a table. And the doctor performed a Cesarean and delivered a healthy baby boy.

Fred Rochlin

Mr. Carafa came over, poured us each a shot of brandy. We said, "Salud," tossed that down. The girl, she was asleep. And Connor packed up his gear, and we started to go. And Mrs. Carafa stopped me. And she said, "[SPEAKING ITALIAN]?" So I told her, "Guillermo." And she said, "[SPEAKING ITALIAN]." And I said, "Connor, they're naming the baby after you." And Connor just sort of smiled and shrugged. And I was proud of him. And I thought, goddamn, good for you, Connor. And good for the American army. We'd done the right thing. And then we started to go. And this time, she stopped me and said, "[SPEAKING ITALIAN]?" And I said, "Frederico." And she said, "[SPEAKING ITALIAN] Guillermo Frederico Carafa."

Margy Rochlin

And after helping bring this baby into the world, my father told what it was like to go on a bombing run seven hours later that culminated with the complete and total destruction of a small town in Hungary that he knew was the wrong target. At the end, the audience did what they did at the traffic school. They rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Then it dawned on me why he was at the very end of the show. No one wanted to follow him.

I should have known that he'd do well. He's an overachiever. His success came with a rapidity that made all my struggling actor friends heartsick. He spent two snowy months in residency at the MacDowell Writers' Colony. In his first year as a performer, the national cultural correspondent for the New York Times did a big piece on him, calling his stories "morally complex and starkly funny." Producers and screenwriters want to meet with my father. I'll repeat that. Producers and screenwriters want to meet with my father.

200 people applied to perform at the prestigious Louisville Arts Festival this year. My father was one of the four people chosen. For eight nights, he performed his one-man show. My father, Fred Rochlin, the artist formerly known as Dad.

Fred Rochlin

Marushka started off in the wrong direction.

Laurie Lathem

OK. Almost. Rather than come downstage, I want you to just move to your right.

Fred Rochlin

OK. Marushka started off in the wrong direction.

Margy Rochlin

Here's another new experience my dad is having in his 70s. He's doing press with his kid. Though he's having all this success, he's not used to being subjected to the opinions of others. Not that long ago, I went to the small theater where my father rehearses. I snuck into the back of the room and watched him roaming around the stage, his words echoing off the walls. At first, he didn't notice I was there. Then he looked up and saw me. And then he looked away. He looked self-conscious. He didn't look like anyone I knew. "This is awkward," he said. I can't remember him ever saying that to me before.

Laurie Lathem

So in other words, the issue of which direction to walk in is raised, dealt with, and resolved all in one spot. And then you move through the next section, which is a whole different thing.

Margy Rochlin

My father has a director. Her name is Laurie Lathem. She's a member of the community that he's become a part of that doesn't include his family or his old life. When he first started taking Laurie's classes, he was 30 or 40 years older than everyone else. He didn't seem to mind. This might have been a part of the draw. It made him exotic. I don't know what intrigued him about the out-of-town seminar populated only by militant lesbians. And when I ask him about it now, he pretends not to remember.

Margy Rochlin

OK, you're still not telling me about-- I know that you were in a group.

Fred Rochlin

I don't know. I really don't know, Margy. I want to be accurate. I don't think so. It may have been some of my folklore, one of my hyperboles.

Margy Rochlin

Well, you called me up-- I don't mean to get too insistent here, but you called me up and asked me if I had ever heard of a performer named Muff Diva.

Fred Rochlin

Muff Diva. Well, I was not in her class. I wasn't. I would remember that.

Margy Rochlin

When he first started talking about it, he would tell me funny stories about young women with tattoos, pierced tongues, and shaved heads, who would only do rants about oppression, about how men kept them down, and how when they said the word "men," the entire room would stare at him. Later, he told me it bugged him at first. "I didn't do anything," he said. Then it went on for so long, and they kept staring at him so accusingly, that he couldn't help but be amused.

But then a couple of days later, he called to tell me that he was feeling ashamed that he'd made light of these women. Their angry diatribes had given way to unhappy memories about leaving home too quickly and parents that were critical of them and of trying to make do on small paychecks from their crummy, menial jobs. These women had stirred protective feelings inside of him. "Their lives are so hard," he told me. "I think they think of me as a father."

The day after the rehearsal, he does a warm-up show for Louisville. My father's very nervous. Meanwhile, I'm worried that my taping will throw him off. So we pin a wireless mic on him before the performance. And I go outside, and I sit on the stairs. Before the show starts, this is what is recorded straight onto the tape. I don't actually hear it until later.

Fred Rochlin

Hitler drove a goddamn BMW. Hitler drove a goddamn BMW, and we're driving them in America today, and it makes me sick. Oh, you son of a-- Hitler drove a goddamn BMW.

Margy Rochlin

What do we want to learn about our parents? What do we want to see? This is an odd thing to admit, but when I took the tape home, I realized that I was scared to listen to it. I was scared of what I might find out. Until I listened to this tape, I'd never heard what my father sounded like when I'm not there. Here's what I found out. When I'm not around, he sounds just like him.

Laurie Lathem

OK, Frederico?

Fred Rochlin

Esto.

Laurie Lathem

This is it. Showtime.

Fred Rochlin

You bet.

Laurie Lathem

Have a great time.

Fred Rochlin

Thank you.

Laurie Lathem

Forget everything I told you. Just go out there and be big.

Fred Rochlin

OK.

Laurie Lathem

Got that?

Fred Rochlin

It's my stage.

Laurie Lathem

But it's a smaller stage than what you think because we've got a bunch of people sitting on the floor.

Laurie Lathem

That makes it better.

Laurie Lathem

OK?

Fred Rochlin

Sure, that's better.

Laurie Lathem

So you're just going to have to roll with it.

Fred Rochlin

Yeah, you bet.

Laurie Lathem

Have a great time.

Fred Rochlin

Thank you.

Laurie Lathem

What you do is so beautiful.

Fred Rochlin

Laurie, you're moving me to tears.

Margy Rochlin

Every seat is filled. Grown-ups are sitting on the floor, cross-legged. In fact, there were people in the parking lot arguing over the last few tickets. The space where my father's performing is twice as wide as a bowling lane, and there is a chair and an end table with a bottle of Slivovitz on it.

It isn't until the show started that I realized how big of a risk my father's taking. This time, he isn't part of a group. There isn't going to be a girl in a fairy godmother dress babbling about who knows what coming out first so that by comparison, my father seems like the wisest man on the planet. It's just him, slowly working his way towards the front of the audience. And suddenly, I notice I have a terrible knot in my stomach. I sit there on the stairs in the back of the theater.

He gets his first laugh, and then another. And now, I feel so relaxed, I can't even pay attention to what he's saying. All I want to do is stare at the faces in the crowd. Everybody seems to be really enjoying themselves, especially whenever my father mentions anything that has to do with sex.

Fred Rochlin

Must've been about noon when Marushka woke me up. And she said, "Fred, you think I no beautiful?" And I said, "What the hell you talking about?" And I looked at her. I could see she was crying. And she said, "Me, Fred, me. I a virgin. I don't want to die virgin. Fred, why don't you put your hand on my shishky? Fred, why don't you put your hooey in my piska? Fred, why don't we make fig-fig?"

Margy Rochlin

You'd think that this would be the part that would disturb me. But it doesn't. What I find jarring is whenever he talks about killing people. There's one particular moment when he talks about shooting three German soldiers. He's been ejected from his plane, is wandering behind enemy lines, meets this woman, Marushka, who is helping him make his way to Italy. They come to a little village full of American sympathizers.

Fred Rochlin

And the head man came over. He made a speech, and I kept hearing the word "Amerikansky." And then we all started walking off toward the outskirts of this village. There was a little hut there. And Marushka said, "Fred, I know you, Fred. Fred, you're not a hard man. But Fred, if they give you a gun, you must do it, Fred. Even if it's against your nature, you must. Or they will kill you and me." Well, I didn't like the way that sounded. That gave me the creeps.

And we got to this little hut. And the head man spoke some more. And then he yanked on this chain, and from under the hut crawled these three young German boys. They were guys about my age, about 18 or 19 years old. And they had these German gray uniforms on. And they were barefoot and had SS insignia on the collar. And they had a chain around their neck and around their wrists and around their ankles. They'd been terribly beaten up, covered with [BLEEP] from top to bottom. They looked like miserable dogs.

And then the head man smiled. And I heard the word "Amerikansky." And he handed me the burp gun. And Marushka said, "Fred, you must do it, Fred. You must do it." And the villagers start going, "Chata, chata, chata, chata, chata!" Jesus Christ, I didn't want to shoot anybody. And Marushka was hissing, "Fred, do it, do it." And I pulled the trigger. And the gun went burp! And I just sawed those three boys in half. And the villagers just went wild with excitement. And we started walking back toward the village.

Margy Rochlin

I've always assumed that this story isn't true. I don't think of my father as this kind of man. In fact, when he showed me an early draft, I told him to take it out. And at first, he did. And then he put it back in. An actor friend of his named Patrick Flanagan told me that one night after class, my father told him that the story about shooting the three German soldiers is true but that he didn't want me or my sisters or my mother to know because he thought it would upset us too much. I asked my dad, "What am I supposed to think?"

Margy Rochlin

And I was talking to Patrick Flanagan backstage. And he said to me, "You know the whole story. You know what's true and what isn't. And your dad told me that that part of the story is true, that you actually did do those killings.

Fred Rochlin

Well, the interesting thing is the idea that somebody would want to know, and particularly an actor, would want to know whether it's true or not true. I don't even think that's an issue. Again, it's a story, it's a metaphor. I don't know, is there a difference in fact and fiction in your mind? Is there?

Margy Rochlin

Big.

Fred Rochlin

Really?

Margy Rochlin

Yes. So who are you telling the true story to, me or Patrick?

Fred Rochlin

Well, that's up to you to decide.

Margy Rochlin

Dad, come on.

Fred Rochlin

No, I haven't thought this through. You've asked a very good question because other people ask it, too. And I've got to prepare an answer.

Margy Rochlin

That's true, but you didn't answer my question. I'm really interested in why-- if, in fact, you told Patrick Flanagan the truth, and me not, why would you do that?

Fred Rochlin

I haven't got the vaguest idea what I told Patrick Flanagan.

Margy Rochlin

Oh, OK. But the true story is that the gun was handed to a 13-year-old boy, who killed-- that you did not do those killings.

Fred Rochlin

That's right. That's a true story. To the best of my knowledge, yeah.

Margy Rochlin

To the best of his knowledge? At this point, I have no idea how to assimilate this information. Even seeing my dad squirm under my questions is a side of him I've never seen before. We argued about it so much that I started to get worried. What if he's coming clean about something that he did so many years ago? I asked one of my older sisters if the same thing concerned her. And she told me that she assumes that all the upsetting parts of the story are made up.

I don't know which version to believe. My father may have shot those soldiers or he may not have. But one thing is for certain. When he goes to these classes, he can be whomever he wants. And God bless him for that. How wonderful for him that he got the chance.

Fred Rochlin

Goodbye, fellas. Thanks for coming. Adios. Thank you.

Margy Rochlin

After the show, I sit backstage with my father. People start streaming in. Pretty soon, it's like a cocktail party. And Bob, the engineer who's with me, is looking at these two young women who have burst into the room and are hugging and kissing my father. Bob puts his hand over the microphone and says to me, "Your father knows a lot of babes."

The fact that they're babes is a bonus. I think my dad would be just as excited with any kind of fan. What's really wonderful is to see that my father is getting a kind of attention that most people don't get at his age-- frankly, that most people don't get at all.

Fred Rochlin

It's just a huge adventure. God, what fun. Afterwards, last night, it was just fun.

Margy Rochlin

You mean hanging out and having all those people come and talk--

Fred Rochlin

Yeah, then going over and having a few drinks, doing the whole post-mortem. Like, these kids sent me these cards. And I find it very moving.

Margy Rochlin

Will you read me a card?

Fred Rochlin

Well, here, you can read it.

Margy Rochlin

Can you read it for me?

Fred Rochlin

OK, it says, "Fred, you are such an inspiration to me. Good luck in Louisville." Well, that's very nice. And "Fred, once again, you break my heart and put it back together again." Well, you know, not too many people say that to me very often. "You are a source of great inspiration to me and others. The house ain't full for nothing, Fred. I'm proud to be your friend and collaborator." Well, that's a lot of fun. You just need to be moved there.

Margy Rochlin

I didn't know that's what the card said. That's so sweet.

Fred Rochlin

It is. And Margy, to have this happen to me at my stage of life-- Being realistic, I assume when have 10 years left, it's sort of a nice way to spend the last 10 years.

Margy Rochlin

When I was growing up, my father kept his leather flight jacket hanging in his closet. I used to go and stare at it. It's really strange to see it on stage when he tells these stories. Painted on the back of it are 50 yellow outlined pictographs shaped like bombs with fins with the nose side down. Two of these are filled with hash marks. These represent the times he was shot down, once near Italy and another time over Yugoslavia.

Here's what happened the second time. One engine was shot out, and the other engine quit. So he bailed out over the Adriatic Sea. Everyone but he and the pilot drowned. My father told me that he tread water. And though he's Jewish, he only knew one prayer, the Shema. And he kept reciting it over and over again. And after six hours, he was rescued by a British navy frigate. He was only 20 years old, and he had three more bombing missions to complete before they sent him home.

I know these details because I've heard the story so many times. But there's something different about hearing him tell stories onstage to strangers. Like the story about how his squadron was supposed to bomb a railroad junction in the town Hajduboszormeny.

Fred Rochlin

Now, Hajduboszormeny was obviously not a military target. It was just a little old Hungarian farming town. British intelligence had just made a mistake. But the colonel said, "When in doubt, you always follow orders. You can't go wrong that way." And we were at 22,000 feet. And he brought us down to 8,000 feet. And at 8,000 feet with a Norden bombsight, you can't miss. And we were the first squadron that went in there. And Harry got on the bomb site. And he dropped those bombs. And we just blew the hell out of everything. There was nothing left. Blew up every building, every street, every light post, everything.

And the next squadron came in. And they dropped their bombs on top of where we had dropped. And then, the next squadron came in. And they dropped their bombs on top of where we had dropped. Then the govern squadron came in. And they dropped their bombs on top of where we had dropped.

Look, every plane carries 10,000 pounds of bombs. 10,000 times 28, that's like a quarter million pounds of TNT. Divide that by, say, 2,500 people. That's like 100 pounds of TNT for every man, child, and woman in that village. Hajduboszormeny was no more. It was gone. It was wiped off the face of this earth. It was just a pile of Hungarian dust, a hole in the ground.

Margy Rochlin

When I hear my father telling these stories onstage, I always think the same thing. After filling up so much space in my imagination, how come I never thought about what it was like to carry those terrible memories around inside of you?

Fred Rochlin

We landed. I got debriefed. I went back to the officers' club, and I was having a brandy. And Captain Bill Connor, the flight surgeon, came in all smiles. And said, "Hey, Rockets! I just came back from the Carafas'. And the baby's doing great, and the mother's doing fine. And the Carafas are happy as hell. They even asked about you. They wanted to know where was Padrito Frederico. They made you and me godfathers.

Then he looked at me. He said, "What are you so down in the dumps about?" And I said, "Well, Connor, I'm feeling kind of weird. You know how last night you went out and delivered that baby and I kind of helped? And I was proud of that, Connor. And this morning, we went out. And Connor, I guess we killed 2,500, 3,000 people. And I helped. Connor, what the hell's going on? Isn't this some kind of insanity?"

And Connor looked at me. "Rockets, you want to go nuts, be put in the booby hatch, be Section 8 out of the army?" "No." "Then you listen to me. And you do what I tell you to do because I'm right. First, you follow orders. You do what you've been trained to do. Then when you're done, just forget it. Forget it. Just forget it. And that drink you're drinking, Rockets, you finish that drink. And when you're done, have another and another. You do that and you'll be all right."

Well, Connor was right. I did what he said. I did my best to forget. And I pretended, and I denied, and I sure did my share of drinking.

Margy Rochlin

I grew up watching my father drink and laugh. I've seen him stand at the head of a dinner table filled with relatives and friends and raise a glass of wine, and watched tears slide down his face as he cries his way through a toast. I've seen him drink hundreds of times. At celebrations, at sad occasions, late at night in the kitchen when it was just him and me talking. And I have never thought that when he drinks it's because he's trying to forget something. I never thought about it until I saw him tell other people.

Ira Glass

Margy Rochlin in Los Angeles. Well, coming up, California Governor Pete Wilson in Lycra tights and a superhero mask on a wrestling mat. Well, somebody like Governor Wilson, anyway. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Mama, Can You Hear Me?

Dan Savage

I'm not here to talk about sex. I'm here to make a confession, to share with you the secret shame of a sex advice columnist. I cannot talk about sex with my family. Anyone else, anywhere else, any kind of sex. But with family, I become, as my little sister Laura will now tell you, a completely different person.

Laura

You get all, "Ooh, you're my little sister. I don't want to talk to you about sex. Back off. Eww, that's gross." You get all little girlish about it.

Dan Savage

How can you say that?

Laura

Because you do. You get all, "Ooh." You turn all red. And you get all high-pitched voiced. And you're all like, "Ooh."

Dan Savage

My parents brought up four kids. Three boys, one girl. Laura is the youngest. When I came out to my family, Laura was thrilled. She finally had a sister. Now there was someone in the family she could dish about boys with. She was having sex with boys. I was having sex with boys. It made perfect sense to her that the two of us should sit up nights, eating brownies and comparing notes.

I remember one of those early conversations. My sister cornered me on the front porch. She wanted some oral sex tips. When I realized why she had cornered me on the porch that night, I wanted to go right back in the house. But considering how well she'd handled the recent news about my sexuality, it didn't seem fair that I should run in and slam the door on her. So though I was dying inside, I shared with Laura the little I knew at that point about oral sex and then got the hell back in the house.

Dan Savage

So of the six of us in the immediate family, if you were to rank everyone for comfort of talking about sex issues, where would I be? Would I be--

Laura

You'd be at the bottom.

Dan Savage

At the bottom? I would?

Laura

You'd be at the bottom.

Dan Savage

But in the extended family, how would you rank me?

Laura

You mean like Peggy and all those guys?

Dan Savage

Yeah, like Peggy, Nestor, Amy, Tracy. The whole sort of crowd, the extended family. The aunts, the uncles, the cousins.

Laura

You'd still be close to the bottom.

Dan Savage

I would still be close to the bottom.

Laura

Yeah.

Dan Savage

I'm not sure where my discomfort came from. My parents were open with us about sex. They would use any opportunity that came along to initiate an educational conversation with us kids about sex. But I'm not convinced their openness was entirely sincere. In the late '70s, moms and dads were under a lot of pressure to be hip. And talking openly with your teens about sex was very hip.

It's funny how different people often remember shared experiences in vastly different ways. I recall the times my mother and father talked to us about sex basically like this. They didn't want to talk to us about it. They didn't like talking to us about it. They weren't any good at talking about it. But by god, they were going to be hip parents if it killed them. But maybe I remember those conversations that way because, in fact, I was the one in agony. My mother remembers those conversations differently.

Judy Savage

We wanted to talk to you about sex. Or at least I did. I can't speak for your father. We thought that we were going to be these great, wonderful, open parents and give you all sorts of information.

Dan Savage

And you sensed that we were uncomfortable having the conversation?

Judy Savage

Well, sometimes you used to cover your ears and say, "I don't want to talk about that with you."

Dan Savage

Oh, really?

Judy Savage

Yeah.

Dan Savage

I did that?

Judy Savage

Yes.

Dan Savage

I remember one run-from-the-room conversation. My brother Eddie came down to dinner wearing a T-shirt with an oral sex innuendo decal ironed onto it. The four of us kids were snickering. And my parents asked us if we really knew what that T-shirt meant. Then my father explained to us, in great detail, all about oral sex. It was 1978. I was 13 years old. And from watching Three's Company and Hollywood Squares, I had managed to work out exactly what oral sex was all on my own. I didn't need my father to explain it to me with a mouthful of shepherd's pie.

Then Mom dropped the bomb. There was nothing wrong with oral sex, she said, so long as the man and the woman engaging in it were in love. Why, she and my father engaged in oral sex. That was all I needed to hear to put me off oral sex for about 15 years. And shepherd's pie.

Part of my problem with those parent-kid conversations about sex was a too-vivid imagination. When you're talking about sex with someone, it's hard not to form mental pictures of them actually having sex. And no one likes to picture their parents having sex. When I answer letters in my column, it's different. I don't know what these people look like. I can picture whoever I want. So unless gender comes into the question in some material way, I picture Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. Together. In fact, let's all take a moment, shall we, to enjoy that picture.

OK, back to the radio show. Since I started writing a sex column, this thing with the family has gotten worse, especially with my mother. During the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, my mother would grill me about my sex life, asking me the most graphic, intense, probing, involved questions. She was absolutely prosecutorial. She wanted to know what sorts of risks I was taking, with whom, how often, under what circumstances, how much I'd had to drink, what this boy's intentions toward me were, where he was raised, what his people did, how much lube we were using, what kind of condoms we used. I've had conversations with my mother about the theory and practice of anal sex that I don't think many people, living or dead, have had with anyone, least of all their mothers.

My mother confides in me, too. We talk about her sex life sometimes. And I've given her advice. But that's as much as I can tell you. Please, please don't ask me for details.

Dan Savage

When you and I talk about sex, it seems to me that it's mostly at your instigation. Do you think we discuss sex more than your average mother and son?

Judy Savage

Probably. I don't really know.

Dan Savage

Do you talk to my brothers about sex?

Judy Savage

Not really. I don't talk to very many people about sex.

Dan Savage

Do you talk to Laura, my sister, about sex?

Judy Savage

No.

Dan Savage

See, but you do talk to me about it. And why do you think that is? Is it because I work in sex, or is it because I'm gay, or is it because we're exceptionally close?

Judy Savage

I think we've always had different conversations since you were a little person. Our conversations always tended to get more intense or to cover more area.

Dan Savage

The only time my mother gets upset about our sex conversations is when I reproduce them in my column. My mom was very upset when my column started running in a weekly paper in our hometown, where she still lives. That first week it ran there, I mentioned details of what she thought was a private conversation we'd had about sex many years before. So now when we talk about sex, my mother takes me on and off the record, like a highly placed Washington source. "Daniel, we're off the record," she'll say before we get into a conversation that I, in all honesty, would rather not be having. When the conversation turns back to more mundane things, she'll announce, "Alrighty, we're back on the record." My mom's a regular Deep Throat. That's a Watergate reference, Mom.

Dan Savage

Do you think that when I came out, when I told the family I was gay, I sort of made sex an issue in a way? Made sexuality and sex an issue, my sex and sexuality, in the family? So do you think that sort of invited conversations about sex?

Judy Savage

Oh, definitely. I think your openness brings it out in a lot of people. And you're so open about it, people don't stop to think that it's a subject that you don't want to discuss or there are people that you don't want to discuss it with.

Dan Savage

Or that I'm only open about it when I'm getting paid. So I'm kind of like a prostitute.

Judy Savage

I don't know if I'd say that.

Dan Savage

I would hope that you wouldn't.

Judy Savage

Good. Well, I won't. Your private persona is very different than your public persona in many areas of your life.

Dan Savage

Oh, really?

Judy Savage

Uh-huh.

Dan Savage

Don't ruin me here, Ma. Don't let the cat out of the bag. I've got a sweet gig going. I don't want it ruined by this interview.

Judy Savage

What's it worth? No. It's not as raw and crude and uncaring as you sometimes come across in print.

Dan Savage

Mom, I'm hurt.

Judy Savage

There, I told on you.

Dan Savage

Here's the worst thing of all. Since it's common knowledge now that I'm uncomfortable talking about sex with my family, it's become a game, the best way to tease me when I'm home for a visit. At a wedding last month, word spread through my immediate and extended family that I had interviewed my mom and my sister for this radio show about how uncomfortable I am talking with my family about sex. People thought that was pretty funny, considering what I do for a living.

Sensing blood in the water, they came after me. Everybody had a sex question for me that day. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, great aunts, siblings, the happy couple. My aunt wouldn't let me leave her table until I told her what fisting was. My brother told me all about his last one-nighter. And like some reoccurring nightmare, a female cousin, the same age as my sister was that night on the porch cornered me at the bar and asked for oral sex pointers. By the time my 17-year-old cousin, Chris, insisted on showing me his new nipple rings, I was in hell. When I complained to my mother, she told me to stop whining. Then she asked me a sex question herself. I'd tell you what her question was, but Mom took me off the record.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage in Seattle.

[MUSIC - "WHAT'S BEHIND THE MASK" BY THE CRAMPS]

Act Three. The Unmasking.

Rj Smith

Something about a mask makes a man brazen. That's the thing Atomic Blue taught me. Atomic Blue was the first Mexican wrestler I met. Picture a man in a skull-hugging blue mask, an atom drawn across the forehead, not to mention his Matt Helm black turtleneck, black jeans, tweed jacket, and really fine leather shoes. If Atomic Blue had a code ring, he'd be encrypting. If he had a martini, he'd be imbibing. He's bad. It's Atomic Blue who taught me that Mexican wrestling is not just a sport. Lucha libre is an art form, a tradition, a battle of good versus evil. Lucha libre, Atomic Blue said, is religion.

El Santo

[SPEAKING SPANISH].

Rj Smith

The greatest of all wrestling heroes was El Santo, "The Saint," who not only fought in the ring, but on the screen. From the '40s down to the present, dozens of wrestling stars have played in hundreds of incredibly strange movies, wrapping their limbs around plot devices pried from horror, crime, and science fiction genres. Santo might easily break up a spy ring, pitch woo at a backseat full of chicas, and defeat martians, all in the same picture.

El Santo

[SPEAKING SPANISH].

Rj Smith

Santo did everything without removing his disguise. Even when he directed his pictures, even when he was buried in 1984, Mexico's saint always kept his mask on.

We're in a parking lot behind an Anaheim swap meet. Every weekend, they pull a plastic tarp off a regulation ring, set up metal bleachers. It's $10 for adults, who bring plenty of kids. About 50 fans surround the ring this afternoon. Shooting Star wears a black mask. Orange bolts crease his temples. In lucha libre, there are good guys, known as "tecnicos," and bad guys, "rudos." Guess which one Shooting Star is.

Shooting Star

What country are you guys in, huh?

Audience

USA! USA!

Audience

Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!

Rj Smith

Every time he yells, "USA," fans scream back, "Mexico!" Shooting Star preens before the hostile crowd. He issues challenges to his opponent, to the fans, and, it seems, maybe even to God. It's getting ugly.

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH].

Shooting Star

I didn't quite get that, did you? I don't under-- English, maybe? Is English the country--

Rj Smith

In Spanish, Shooting Star calls the hecklers "dirty wetbacks," asks if they're citizens of the US. It seems like everything in Mexican culture, people's worries and fears, plays out in the ring. So it's no surprise that there's a wrestler who's the equivalent of a masked Governor Pete Wilson playing the bad guy, taunting the immigrants in the crowd. What happens in Mexican life happens again in the ring.

Shooting Star

No one's talking to you, so you just keep your mouth shut.

Rj Smith

A couple years ago, when reports of a blood-sucking creature feasting on farm animals first shocked Mexico, a new wrestling star called The Goat Sucker suddenly appeared. Other heroes include wrestling priests and social workers. In today's match, one of the luchadores was named El Cholo, a wrestler dressed as a gang banger in saggy pants and colors, flashing gang signs.

The luchadore reaches back to prehistoric mass religious rituals of American Indians and echoes to this moment. Many have pointed out how the suave, pipe-smoking, ski-masked, sub-commander Marcos, leader of the Zapatista rebels in northern Mexico, calculatedly evokes the image of El Santo. It's as if Hulk Hogan somehow carried within his form overtones of Daniel Boone and Martin Luther King.

This is the power of the mask. It makes superheroes out of die cutters, mechanics, gardeners. In Anaheim, I even met a wrestler who was a chiropractic student. In the ring, a character named El Genie wears harem pants and performs a move he calls "the magic lamp." During the week, the tall, beefy man with a black pony tail is a car upholsterer.

El Genie

When I first started doing this, it was hard to get back to doing what I did, to be in upholstery. Because I would miss being out there, being the superstar. I'd miss it. But in our culture, in the Mexican culture, you get a lot of respect. For example, every time I go to Mexico and I go out-- let's say I go to a dance or something-- I get special treatment. They give me a table, and they treat me to drinks. And it's kind of funny because that's how people are.

As soon as you put the mask on, you feel like a total different person. If you're a "heel," which is a bad guy, all of a sudden, you feel this urge to hurt, to inflict pain. And if you're a "face," a good guy, you feel like you've got to go and save the world. It's funny, and it happens.

When someone takes your mask off in the ring, and they just take it off, it's like a humiliation. You get humiliated when someone takes your mask off. Whoever loses that match has to take off their mask and never wrestle with it again. It happened to me, yeah. I went against one of the top wrestlers in Mexico. And I lost it in the Mexicali against Fishman. His name was Fishman. And he was my idol as I was growing up. But it came to a head. We had a rivalry that came to a head. And we bet our masks, and he got the better part. And that's the biggest humiliation you can receive in the ring, losing your mask.

Rj Smith

I saw it once, and I'll never forget. It happened last spring. And for weeks after, I had dreams of masked men, wrestlers, hockey goalies, the guys in KISS. It was the last match of the night, Bulldog Rivera versus Shamu Junior. Shamu was a pudgy tecnico. Nobody had to wonder how he got the name Shamu, no wonder about the whale appliques decorating his Aqua Velva blue mask. The fight was even for a while. But then Bulldog climbs the ropes, leaps at Shamu Junior's torso, and knocks him to his knees. Shamu Junior's in a fog. And Bulldog smoothly reaches back for the laces binding his mask.

El Genie

Oh, god. Everything was going through my-- I thought I would never do it again, I would never wrestle again, that people were just going to forget me right away because I had lost. And I wasn't going to get over it. And it felt-- I cried on top of the ring. I cried when I lost my mask. It was something-- god, it's hard to describe. But it was a feeling of-- I felt alone. I felt so alone that day. But that night, one of my sons was there. And he came up to the ring, and he gave me a hug. And it felt good. It felt a lot better. This is his words. He said, "You know, Dad, it's just a mask. You know?"

Rj Smith

The unmasking. It's the most sacramental moment. And over the next few minutes, Bulldog returns to the act at will, almost tenderly unlacing as Shamu Junior futilely resists. His head cradled in Bulldog's lap, Shamu Junior pleads with the ref. But then, Bulldog sends the ref sprawling with a kick. There is no hope now. Armed security men are restraining a lady in her 40s with a dye job. All around, there's a call for blood.

In an act of lyric defiance, Shamu Junior undoes the rest of his own laces and flings his mask at his opponent. He is utterly humiliated. Losing your mask is like losing your ego, manhood, superpowers, and, since fans typically turn on you, your opportunity to make cash off the books. He buries his face in his hands, fighting off Bulldog's probing fingers. Finally, Bulldog pries away Shamu's hands, and we see his face. Degraded without the mask, he's just a guy, a buzz cut of dark hair, short on the sides. It's the day before Easter. Christ may have risen, but Shamu Junior is taking a fall.

Ira Glass

RJ Smith is a senior writer for Spin magazine. He had help in the field from Mandalit del Barco.

[MUSIC - "TUBTHUMPING" BY CHUMBAWUMBA]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was introduced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Senior editor, Paul Tough. Contributing editors, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consligliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Day, Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you know you can listen to most of our program for free at our website www.thisamericanlife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who envisions the future of our program this way--

Dan Savage

I picture Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. Together.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.