Transcript

94:

How To
Transcript

Originally aired 02.27.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/94

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's a how-to manual, just six pages long, written by a sixth grader in Brooklyn named Peter. He handed it in to his teacher three years ago. She still has it.

Melissa Cantor

I keep it on my bulletin board by my refrigerator in case-- both for amusement and also in case I ever need to consult it.

Ira Glass

The manual gives step-by-step instructions on how to protect yourself from all sorts of unwanted visitors, that's all sorts of unwanted visitors says the teacher, Melissa Cantor.

Melissa Cantor

There are a number of them. The first is the Wolfman. Then come aliens. Then there's one which is kind of a subtle digression, but it's along the same lines. It's if you have a bad dream.

Ira Glass

Which, in a way, is an unwanted visitor.

Melissa Cantor

It so is. Really. It really is. And the final one is dinosaurs.

Ira Glass

If you have an unwanted visitor dinosaur?

Melissa Cantor

Right.

Ira Glass

The chapter on the Wolfman begins with this little pep talk. "First think," it says, "why would the Wolfman come to your house out of all the houses in Brooklyn?" But if you're afraid, here's what you do. Number one, sleep with a glass with water in it. Number two, Peter tells you to close the blinds, get under the covers, put a fan on.

Melissa Cantor

Number three, "if he comes in, put covers over your whole body. Don't move."

Ira Glass

Like he'll never suspect you're there.

Melissa Cantor

Exactly. This is what to do if a Wolfman with a low IQ comes to your house. "Four, if you want the satisfaction of killing him, take the glass and splash the water in his face." Then it switches. It says, B.

Ira Glass

Wait, we've gone from one, two, three, four, and now we're going B, C, D?

Melissa Cantor

Right.

Ira Glass

What's interesting is that one instinctively knows, even in the sixth grade, that if there's going to be a how-to, there are going to have to be steps and substeps.

Melissa Cantor

Yes. I think in sixth grade-- I don't know if this is a digression or not. It is a digression. Can I digress, or should I stick to the text?

Ira Glass

No, no, no. Digress away.

Melissa Cantor

In sixth grade, I think there's a general sense of kind of that the universe has an order, and they know a few key terms that guide that order. But some of the specifics sort of escape them. So for example, I had a sixth grader who wrote a story, and I knew it was a very, very steamy story, because when he went to give it to me, he was surrounded by all of his friends who were kind of giggling madly and sort of quite shocked that he gave it to me and then raced out of the room.

And the story involved a man and a woman who were having a romantic evening in front of the fire. And there was soft music playing. And finally, to show that this was truly a romantic evening, the man takes a bottle of white wine-- it was very clear, white wine that they had been drinking-- and pours it all over the woman, which is I guess a sign that this is amorous.

Ira Glass

The kid had the props right-- the fire, the soft music, the wine. He just wasn't clear on how everything fit together, which, in a way, happens all through this how-to. It's a hodgepodge. The dinosaur advice has images lifted straight from Jurassic Park. The Wolfman section has one practical piece of advice taken, really, from any middle-class dinner table in Brooklyn. "After you kill the Wolfman," it says, "if you think your mom will get mad from all the blood, take seltzer and paper towels and pat it. Then scrub."

Ira Glass

Why do you think he did this as a how-to? What is it about the how-to form that would be so attractive?

Melissa Cantor

I think that the how-to form makes it seem like the world will follow certain rules. And if you follow certain rules, you'll be safe. And it puts it, I think, in your control. Because obviously, you have no control over whether or not the Wolfman or aliens come to your house.

Ira Glass

The how-to form. It's ingrained in us. It's part of what we are, how we make sense of the universe. Consider this story. In 1696, in England, the law changed, and suddenly people in England could publish whatever they wanted without getting it approved first by the king and his censor. And so there was this explosion of publishing. And within just a few decades, the single most popular kind of book, as soon as people could sell and buy any kind of books they chose, these were how-to books. In particular, how-to books written to teach people, mostly women, how, through education, self-control, and hard work, any family could better itself, could enter what we come to think of now as the middle class.

And here's where it gets interesting. The advice books on how to become middle class came before the existence of an actual middle class. People followed the how-to instructions, bettered themselves, and the middle class emerged. We would not be who we are today without how-to. There's a straight line from those 18th century books of personal betterment to every Tony Robbins infomercial, every Jane Fonda workout video, every Martha Stewart magazine article-- stuff that gives you both step-by-step instructions and a motivational dream, a dream that you can transform yourself into a different person.

Which brings us to today's show. Each week on our program, of course we choose theme and bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's show, how-to's, and what happens during a how-to, and what our how-to's say about us.

Act One of today's show, Roadrunner, in which I teach one of our regular contributors, Sarah Vowell, how to drive, and I find out that a simple how-to is never as simple as you think.

Act Two, How to Date a Blackgirl, Browngirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie. Junot Diaz explains what to do with the government-issued cheese in the refrigerator when you bring a date over to the house.

Act Three, How to Increase Your Value as a Person, an act in which we try to tackle the biggest possible how-to we could think of, how to make your life worth more. And we get answers, real practical answers. Stay with this.

Act One. Roadrunner.

Ira Glass

Act One, Roadrunner. We don't even agree on where this story begins. As far as I was concerned, it was just another how-to story. Our contributing editor Sarah Vowell wanted to learn how to drive, and I would teach her in two quick lessons.

Sarah Vowell

For me, it wasn't even about driving. It was about fear. Nothing scares me more than driving. Nothing. I can't even ride a bike without mangling my digits and hitting parked cars. I've always been terrified that I'd get behind the wheel and it would be a big Shangri-La song with people screaming, "Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!" Somehow I didn't mention this to Ira before we began.

Ira Glass

And this, I think, is how it usually goes with any how-to. A how-to seems like the most rational, orderly thing in the world. You know you do step one. You do step two, step three. Follow the diagram and instructions. Before you know it, creme brulee or the toy train set is assembled, or you're a more effective, convincing public speaker, whatever. But in fact, the logical step-by-step process is just a veneer of civilization cutting the vast paranoia that is not knowing, and the process of learning itself, which is inherently irrational, which brings us to the car guys.

Tom Magliozzi

Hey.

Ray Magliozzi

Hello?

Ira Glass

Tom and Ray?

Ray Magliozzi

Yeah, who's this? Is this Ira?

Ira Glass

Yeah, it's Ira.

Tom Magliozzi

Hi, Ira.

Ira Glass

How are you guys doing?

Tom Magliozzi

We're doing great. What's up, man?

Ira Glass

These of course, are Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR's Car Talk. I called them up to ask for practical advice on how to teach Sarah how to drive.

Ray Magliozzi

There isn't one person in 20,000 that knows the correct way to take a left turn. The rule simply is, you continue in the lane you're driving in until you get into what is the right lane of the lane you're turning to, right? Now what happens when a car is coming in the other direction which also wants to take a left turn? Got it?

Tom Magliozzi

Yeah, got it.

Ira Glass

What was I thinking? Tom and Ray articulated rules of the road so obscure that no one actually follows them.

Ray Magliozzi

And there's not one driver in 50,000 who conforms to that rule.

Ira Glass

Wait a second. And you're saying that I should teach her this way and not the way that every driver in America does it?

Tom Magliozzi

No, you should teach her the way that every driver does it because she'll be assassinated her first day out.

Ray Magiozzi

[LAUGHS] Yeah, boy.

Ira Glass

No useful tips on steering or shifting or traffic, but the sages of Car Talk Plaza did have one prediction about what happens when you teach someone to drive.

Ray Magliozzi

You have to be aware that things in your nature that you heretofore have kept secret from the entire world will be divulged to this person.

Ira Glass

Now wait a second. Are you giving me this advice out of personal experience on either of your part?

Tom Magliozzi

Oh, yeah.

Ray Magliozzi

Absolutely. Keep us posted, Ira. And I look forward every Friday to hearing you on that science show that you work for.

Tom Magliozzi

That's the wrong Ira, you knucklehead.

Ray Magliozzi

Oh, boy.

Sarah Vowell

When people ask me why I don't drive, I usually say, my sister drives. And to most people, that sounds like such a loony idea. But my sister and I are twins, and when you're a twin, there can be a very clear division of labor. I did the mental things. She did the physical ones. I learned to read before she did. She learned to ride a bike years before I did. Driving was her jurisdiction. Criticizing her driving was mine.

After one humiliating attempt to learn when I was 16, I simply blocked the possibility out of my mind. I'm never going to drive, like I'm never going to murder anyone, like I'm never going to like Celine Dion. It was that huge.

Ira Glass

So it comes the day when Sarah's supposed to go down to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get her learner's permit. And she stops by, and I'm still thinking that we're just doing this little radio story, not realizing that, in fact, this is her greatest phobia. And I notice that she has this look on her face that I can only describe as pre-throw up, as she nervously flips through a copy of the Illinois state driving rules.

Sarah Vowell

So the second I opened it-- and this has been going on for days, you know. The second I opened it, I have been extremely anxious. It was like opening it up, boom. I was another person. I had just been tapping my fingers and nervous. It's like I just had 12 gallons of coffee. Am I sounding completely nervous and out of control and scared? Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yes.

Sarah Vowell

Good. I'm communicating that.

Ira Glass

You don't believe in your heart that you can actually control a car.

Sarah Vowell

Nope.

Ira Glass

But that's the part that you're going to learn through this process.

Sarah Vowell

I don't know. I just feel like this just isn't about me.

Ira Glass

What do you mean it isn't about you?

Sarah Vowell

This is for the car class.

Ira Glass

What are you talking about?

Sarah Vowell

The car class is a specific class of people whom the American world is set up for. The car class in the elite. The car class is the upper class. The car class has all the power, makes all the rules. The car class occasionally throws a few dimes of taxes our way so that the non-car class can get places on the train. I mean, the car class burns fossil fuels. The car class, you know--

Ira Glass

So you feel like the fact that I'm encouraging you-- like that you'll feel good if you can drive-- you just feel like--

Sarah Vowell

I'm joining a cult.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sarah Vowell

One of us. One of us.

Listening back to that conversation now, I am pained. I don't know who that humorless fanatic was. Though in my defense, I was grasping for any reason to get out of this driving mistake. Let me assure you that I care about fossil fuels precisely as much as everyone else in America, which is to say not at all.

Sarah Vowell

OK, one more thing.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sarah Vowell

I told you what was my biggest fear. You have to tell me yours.

Ira Glass

Women drivers.

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

So Sarah passes the test to get a learner's permit. I rent a car, and we head out to an elementary school parking lot.

Sarah Vowell

OK. What do I do? Should my feet be touching those pedals?

Ira Glass

They should be able to. So what you want to do is first you want to just get situated and adjust the mirrors and the seat. So push up the seat. Good.

Sarah Vowell

Wait. How much should my legs be bent?

I was asking a lot of questions, not just because I wanted to know, but because I was stalling.

Ira Glass

She asked about the mirror, as if reflective glass was this crazy, newfangled gadget.

Sarah Vowell

What am I supposed to see out of that?

Ira Glass

What you want to see is kind of like the side of the car just a little bit, and then you want to see what's next to the car.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

OK?

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

This is the thing about a how-to. You find yourself explaining things, putting words into sentences that you never imagined you would ever be doing.

Sarah Vowell

After more stalling than we can possibly recount here on the radio, there was no avoiding the moment I'd been dreading since I was 15.

Ira Glass

I want to just give it a little bit of gas. I want you to be mindful there's only one car in this parking lot. I don't want us to hit it. So do that. You're going to keep going to the right. I want you to just give it a little bit of gas.

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Let's just say that we just kind of lurched forward like one of those scenes in Star Trek where they're hit by a spaceship.

And then we drove in circles. Literally, circles. And it was a surprisingly nonverbal kind of how-to. Mostly I just watched while Sarah got a feel for the car's controls, how much spin on the steering wheel actually turned the car, how much pressure on the gas pedal yielded how much speed. And I have to say, she was a natural.

Ira Glass

You are so good at this. I'm so impressed. Sarah, you are doing so well. Here's the tricky turn, though. Don't hit the handicapped people!

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHS]

It was like learning to play the piano, how in the beginning, you look at your hands as much as you look at the music. The hard thing isn't decoding the notes. It's doing it in time without stopping to think about every little move.

Sarah Vowell

I'm turning left and lurching, and turning right a little bit. And now I'm turning left a lot!

After half an hour in which I played the driving equivalent of chopsticks, Ira took over the wheel again to take us to the next parking lot. I watched the streets while he drove, and suddenly they looked so narrow and fraught with the danger. My beautiful city of orderly boulevards and responsible fellow citizens now looked like some film noir back alley where you can't trust a soul, where a dame's pretty smile gets you nothing but the jaws of life, where even the parked cars looked like they were packing heat, and they didn't care who knew.

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, in the real world, I looked for a bigger parking lot to practice driving in. And then we drove past Rosehill Cemetery. Perfect. Like a big, deserted public park with long winding roads, no cars, nobody around. Nobody we could hurt anyway.

Sarah Vowell

OK. I think we're clear. Huh? Yeah.

Ira Glass

Sarah drove on snow. She handled intersections. I thought she was doing great. But then she started to act very, very strange.

Sarah Vowell

I don't feel like myself right now. I'm having an outer body experience. I'm not really nervous anymore, but I'm not really concentrating.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Well, that's reassuring.

Sarah Vowell

My voice sounds different. Does my voice sound different? I don't sound like myself right now, do I?

Ira Glass

In any how-to, there are the actual skills that you're learning and then there is the fact that by learning these skills, you are actually becoming, in a small way, a different person. And during the how-to there's this period where you have the skills but you do not yet see yourself as a kind of person who has those skills, as the changed person. And this period, it can last for hours. It can last for years, really. Forever.

Sarah Vowell

There's a car behind me, huh?

Ira Glass

Well, that's the way it's going to be.

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHS]

Who said they could come here?

Ira Glass

Signal left.

Sarah Vowell

I can't.

Ira Glass

Signal.

Sarah Vowell

I can't.

Ira Glass

Signal. Signal. Now turn left.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

Slow down. No. Slow down. Not so much gas. Good.

Sarah Vowell

I'd sort of forgotten there'd be other cars around. I had problems of my own without worrying about the other drivers, not just their actions, their actual existence.

Ira Glass

And this brings us to the part of our story that we think of as the frightening near misses.

Sarah Vowell

A word about this next recording before we play it for you. Remember, please, driving is my greatest fear. And it's not a totally irrational fear. There are things about driving that are in fact dangerous, like learning to pass another car without hitting it. So what happens when you confront the scariest part of your greatest fear? Well, I don't know about you, but I laugh, a lot.

It was like that the first time when I was 16 and my sister tried to teach me to drive. I got behind the wheel and started giggling so maniacally and so uncontrollably for so long that she kicked me out of her car and made me walk.

Ira Glass

So all of which to say, the first two times that another car passed us on the road in the cemetery, Sarah drove straight off the street. Here's what it sounded like.

Ira Glass

No. Sarah. Sarah.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Sarah, now, listen. None of the wheels of this car is actually in the street right now.

Sarah Vowell

Can't we just pretend like I did well? What was that? That's called panicking, isn't it? I saw the other car, and I just wanted to be away from it.

Ira Glass

What I don't understand is you're doing so well. What do you have to panic about?

Sarah Vowell

Hitting it?

Ira Glass

Hitting it.

Sarah Vowell

I swerved away from it to protect them. That was actually a heroic move and not a cowardly one.

But I'm such a brand-new driver that I have no habits. Five minutes after I'd lurched away from the truck, a Buick passed, and I was compelled toward it like a magnet. Ira grabbed the wheel and swerved us away.

Ira Glass

Slow. Slow.

This is the thing that I never suspected. I thought it was just going to be like, step one, step two, step three, easy, learn to drive, no problem. I never realized that I was actually going to get scared.

Sarah Vowell

"Oh, I look down on Sarah's fears. I thought Sarah's fears were unfounded. Sarah's just a scaredy cat, who, if she just thought things through like a rational human being--"

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell

Yes, Ira.

Ira Glass

You have to admit that this was not so hard. After only an hour in the cemetery, you were ready to drive among the living.

Pull up a little more. After this car, I want you to go. Now. Stay in your lane.

Sarah Vowell

[SIGHS]

Ira Glass

Sarah looked to the left, looked to the right, and pulled into traffic down a narrow residential street.

Ira Glass

I brought a tape, now that we're out on the road. Follow the curb here.

[MUSIC - "ROADRUNNER" BY THE MODERN LOVERS]

Sarah Vowell

Aw, you remembered!

[SINGING] Going faster miles an hour. Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop. With the radio on.

Ira Glass

Sarah named her first book after a line from this song, a song all about driving.

Sarah Vowell

I thought it was all about listening to the radio.

Ira Glass

Anyway, the celebration turned out to be a little premature.

Sarah Vowell

The song was so blissfully distracting, it was hard to keep pace with traffic. And four cars, in a kind of convergence of hate, honked a big, "Howdy, neighbor, welcome to the car class."

Ira Glass

It suddenly seemed like a very good idea to turn off the tape.

Sarah Vowell

Eww.

[HORNS HONKING]

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

Turn off the stereo. Go to the right. Turn right. Turn right. You have a green.

Sarah Vowell

All right. All right, everybody.

Ira Glass

Good. Pull over here.

Sarah Vowell

Pull over?

Ira Glass

Stop, stop, stop. Stop.

Sarah Vowell

Despite the occasional close call, it was a very good start. But our second lesson the next day led us to a side of our how-to that-- I mean, I guess I should have seen this coming. After all, I did have the warning from the Garage Cassandras, the Bards of Stratford on Charles, the oracle at Car Talk Plaza.

Ray Magliozzi

Things in your nature that you heretofore have kept secret from the entire world will be divulged to this person.

Ira Glass

We'd gotten along OK on the first day. Day two began with this insane claim on the part of my friend Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell

Insane?

Ira Glass

You claimed you hadn't driven.

Sarah Vowell

I just feel very removed from the whole thing. I wasn't driving. I was doing a story.

Ira Glass

But you drove for two hours.

Sarah Vowell

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But somehow you still think that you haven't driven.

Sarah Vowell

Well, yeah, I mean, driving just isn't something I do. I mean, I guess I could see that physically, yes, I was doing it. And I remember being there in all of it. But I just felt like that was my evil twin or something. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Yesterday when you and I were in the car, everything was just fine, right?

Sarah Vowell

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

It was just fine. We got along fine.

Sarah Vowell

It's only right now you're getting on my nerves.

Ira Glass

That's what I was going to say. You're getting on my nerves. You are. I can't believe this. I mean, you can actually drive. And I don't know. Maybe this is just very boy, but I feel like I showed you how to drive and now you're turning around and you're telling me that it never happened.

Sarah Vowell

I feel like you have this kind of you feel like you need to save me or something right now in a way that's bothering me.

Ira Glass

Well, no, it isn't that I feel like I need to save you. It's that I feel like you don't know, but I know. I know better. It's a feeling of I know better. Not a very good feeling to bring up between two people. Not only is it a feeling of I know better. It's a feeling that I know better what you need.

Sarah Vowell

Hmm. I don't want to drive. And since I have driven, I feel like-- this is sort of weird, but it sort of feels like I would imagine how it feels to have an affair or something. I feel like I've cheated on myself. You know that while you're doing it that that's what you're doing and you can sort of feel yourself doing it. You can feel yourself touch this foreign object. And then the next morning, you just wish the whole thing had never happened. You just hope no one ever finds out.

Ira Glass

An impasse. Any teacher will tell you, in any how-to situation, there's the actual learning part and then, the trickiest part of all, motivation.

Sarah Vowell

I'm feeling a little deflated right now, like I need to be pumped up to go out. I need some fun encouragement to get back in the car again.

Ira Glass

Sarah knew how to drive. She just didn't remember why she should drive. So I tried to evoke for her the picture of an America in which she could hit the open road, like Dean Moriarty, like driving is America, like there's a fundamental idea of what it is to be an American that is bound up in every hit-the-road song and movie and story that either of us have ever loved and probably you listening to my voice right now, in your car, listening to the radio that you also have loved, like, "it's waiting out there like a killer in the sun. Just one more chance. We can make it if we run." All of that. I went through all of it.

Didn't work. She mentioned something about the highway within that I didn't completely understand. So I switched tactics.

To feel the freedom of the road, you don't need Jack Kerouac. You just need Jack in the Box. Drive-through.

Sarah Vowell

Drive-through. Really?

Ira Glass

Let's go.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

I know most people think of the drive-through as a visual and gastronomic blight. But my sister and I are obsessed with them. Our dad wouldn't go through drive-throughs when we were growing up. I think they make him nervous, partly because he's deaf. He only approves of fast food when it's served on the fancy trays, so we think of drive-throughs as these objects of desire, full of the thrills denied to us so cruelly for so long.

Ira Glass

So what's it going to be then? Are you in the mood for Burger King or McDonald's or--

Sarah Vowell

I want to go to a place that's on the right side of the street.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

So you don't have to make a left turn?

Sarah Vowell

Yeah.

Three left turns later, we pull into the drive-through lane of a Burger King.

Ira Glass

OK. You're doing great.

Sarah Vowell

Look. We're at the thing.

Ira Glass

OK.

Man

Can I take your order, please?

Sarah Vowell

We'd like a Whopper and two Cokes and one chicken sandwich.

Man

You want two Cokes, a Whopper, and a chicken sandwich?

Sarah Vowell

Uh-huh.

Man

Will that be all, ma'am?

Sarah Vowell

Yep.

Man

Would you like any fries with that?

Ira Glass

One fry.

Sarah Vowell

One fry.

Man

OK, that's two Cokes, a Whopper, a chicken sandwich, and a medium fry. Will that be all?

Sarah Vowell

Uh-huh.

Man

OK, your total comes to $9.08. Drive through, please.

Sarah Vowell

OK. [LAUGHS] He said drive through, please, to me. To me. No one's ever said that to me before.

Ira Glass

Those of you familiar with the customs of life here in the United States of America need no explanation of what happens next. We give the guy some money. He gives us food.

Sarah Vowell

Notice. Notice. It's coming through the car window.

Man

OK, there you go.

Sarah Vowell

Thank you.

Man

You're welcome. Have a nice day.

Sarah Vowell

You too.

Ira Glass

We pulled into a parking space to eat.

Sarah Vowell

That was fun. [LAUGHS]

I have to say, this is probably going to be the best crappy sandwich I've ever had in my life.

Ira Glass

It was a really remarkable thing to see. Half an hour before this, she never wanted to drive ever again, never wanted to join the part of our American culture that is behind the wheel. It was an epiphany, an actual epiphany, all taking place at a Burger King. She overcame the greatest fear of her life at a drive-through window.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

How many times do you think you'd have to do drive through before it would stop giving you this unbelievable thrill?

Sarah Vowell

Never.

Ira Glass

Ever? Man, Sarah.

Sarah Vowell

I loved the way the guy looked at me and smiled and said, you know-- what did he say, something plain like enjoy your meal? But I felt like he really meant it.

[LAUGHTER]

And now, my fellow Americans, we have arrived at the drive off into the sunset portion of our story, even though it was the middle of the day, even though we were heading east. We went up Irving Park Road to the highway, Lake Shore Drive, the most beautiful street in America.

Ira Glass

Trees and old beautiful buildings, the whole city of Chicago to our right. Lake Michigan to our left. Eight lanes of speeding cars. We merged.

Sarah Vowell

Now I'm feeling kind of giddy. But you know what?

Ira Glass

What?

Sarah Vowell

I feel like I'm driving.

Ira Glass

You do.

Sarah Vowell

Yes. No alternate personalities are in charge of this vehicle at this moment.

Ira Glass

That's good to know. Follow that white car.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

Ira Glass

OK, whatever they do, you do.

Sarah Vowell

[SINGING] Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.

Ira Glass

No, you can't.

Sarah Vowell

Yes, I can.

Ira Glass

No, you can't.

Sarah Vowell

Yes, I can.

Ira Glass

No, you can't.

Sarah Vowell

OK, it's true.

[MUSIC - "ROADRUNNER" BY THE MODERN LOVERS]

Ira Glass

Coming up, if she's from the neighborhood, take her to El Cibao to eat. If she's not, Wendy's will do. And after dinner, what to say when you see the sunset and other how-to's including how to value your own life, in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. How To Date A Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, Or Halfie.

Ira Glass

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 and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, How-to. What happens during a how-to, what our how-to's say about us. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.

You know, one of the most common kinds of how-to's, going back to when they begin has always involved how to act to seem attractive to someone else. In that genre, we offer this story from Junot Diaz. A warning that some of this might not be suitable for younger listeners.

Junot Diaz

Wait for your brother and your mother to leave the apartment. You've already told them that you're feeling too sick to go to Union City to visit that tia who likes to squeeze your nuts. "He's gotten big," she'll say. And even though your moms knows you ain't sick, you stuck to your story until finally she said, "Go ahead and stay, malcriado."

Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. If the girl's from the Terrace, stack the boxes behind the milk. If she's from the Park or Society Hill, hide the cheese in the cabinet above the oven, way up where she'll never see. Leave yourself a reminder to get it out before morning or your moms will kick your ass.

Take down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo, especially the one with the half naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash. The kids are your cousins, and by now they're old enough to understand why you're doing what you're doing. Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro. Make sure the bathroom is presentable. Put the basket with all the crapped-on toilet paper under the sink. Spray the bucket with the Lysol, then close the cabinet. Shower, comb, dress. Sit on the couch and watch TV.

If she's an outsider, her father will be bringing her, maybe her mother. Neither of them want her seeing any boys from the Terrace. People get stabbed in the Terrace. But she's strongheaded, and this time will get her way. If she's a white girl, you know you'll at least get a hand job.

The directions were in your best handwriting, so her parents won't think you're an idiot. Get up from the couch and check the parking lot. Nothing. If the girl's local, don't sweat it. She'll flow over when she's good and ready. Sometimes she'll run into her other friends, and a whole crowd will show up at your apartment. And even though that means you ain't getting [BLEEP], it will be fun anyway and you'll wish these people would come over more often.

Sometimes the girl won't flow over at all, and the next day in school, she'll say, sorry, and smile. And you'll be stupid enough to believe her and ask her out again.

Wait, and after an hour, go out to your corner. The neighborhood is full of traffic. Give one of your boys a shout, and when he says, "Are you still waiting on that bitch?" say, "Hell yeah." Get back inside. Call her house. And when her father picks up, ask if she's there. He'll ask, "Who is this?" Hang up. He sounds like a principal or a police chief, the sort of dude with a big neck who never has to watch his back.

Sit and wait. By the time your stomach's ready to give out on you, a Honda or maybe a Jeep pulls in, and out she comes. "Hey," you'll say. "Look," she'll say, "my mom wants to meet you. She's got herself all worried about nothing." Don't panic. Say, "Hey, no problem." Run a hand through your hair like the white boys do, even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa.

She will look good. The white ones are the ones you want the most, but usually the out-of-towners are black-- black girls who grew up with ballet and Girl Scouts, who have three cars in their driveways. If she's a halfie, don't be surprised that her mother is white. Say hi. Her moms will say hi, and you will see that you don't scare her, not really.

She will say that she needs easier directions to get out. And even though she has the best directions in her lap, give her new ones. Make her happy.

You have choices. If the girl is from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina, and amaze her if she's black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do.

As you walk to the restaurant, talk about school. A local girl won't need the stories about the neighborhood, but the other ones might. Supply the story about the loco who had been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighborhood got a dose of the military strength stuff. Don't tell her that your moms knew right away what it was, that she recognized its smell from the year the United States invaded your island.

Hope that you don't run into your nemesis, Howie, the Puerto Rican kid with the two killer mutts. He walks them all over the neighborhood, and every now and then, the mutts corner themselves a cat and tear it to shreds. Howie laughing as the cat flips up in the air, its neck twisted around like an owl, red meat showing through the soft fur. If his dogs haven't cornered a cat, he will walk behind you and ask, "Hey, Junior, is that your new [BLEEP]?" Let him talk.

Howie weighs about 200 pounds and could eat you if he wanted. At the field, he will turn away. He has new sneakers and doesn't want them muddy. If the girl's an outsider, she will hiss now and say, "What a [BLEEP] asshole." A homegirl would have been yelling back at him the whole time unless she was shy. Either way, don't feel bad that you didn't do anything. Never lose a fight on your first date or that will be the end of it.

Dinner will be tense. You are not good at talking to people you don't know. A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the movement, will say, "Back then, people thought it a radical thing to do." It will sound like something her parents made her memorize. Your brother once heard that one and said, "Man, that sounds like a whole lot of Uncle Tomming to me." Don't repeat this. Put down your hamburger and say, "It must have been hard." She will appreciate your interest. She will tell you more. "Black people," she will say, "treat me real bad. That's why I don't like them."

You'll wonder how she feels about Dominicans. Don't ask. Let her speak on it, and when you're both finished eating, walk back into the neighborhood. The skies will be magnificent. Pollutants have made Jersey sunsets one of the wonders of the world. Point it out. Touch her shoulder and say, "That's nice, right?"

Get serious. Watch TV, but stay alert. Sip some of the rum your father left in the cabinet, which nobody touches. A local girl may have hips and a thick ass, but she won't be quick about letting you touch. She has to live in the same neighborhood as you, has to deal with you being in her business. She might just chill with you and then go home. She might kiss you and then go. Or she might, if she's reckless, give it up, but that's rare. Kissing will suffice.

A white girl might just give it up right then. Don't stop her. She'll take her gum out of her mouth, stick it to the plastic sofa covers, and then will move close to you. "You have nice eyes," she might say. Tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because in truth, you love them more than you love your own. She will say, "I like Spanish guys." And even though you've never been to Spain, say, "I like you." You'll sound smooth.

You'll be with her until about 8:30, and then she'll want to wash up. In the bathroom, she will hum a song from the radio and her waist will keep the beat against the lip of the sink. Imagine her old lady coming to get her, what she would say if she knew her daughter had just laid under you and blown your name, pronounced with her eighth grade Spanish, into your ear. While she's in the bathroom, call one of your boys and say, Lo hice, loco. Or just sit back on the couch and smile.

But usually-- usually it won't work this way. Be prepared. She will not want to kiss you. "Just cool it," she'll say. The halfie might lean back, breaking away from you. She will cross her arms, say, "I hate my tits." Stroke her hair, but she will pull away. "I don't like anyone touching my hair," she will say. She will act like somebody you don't know. In school, she is known for her attention-grabbing laugh, as high and far ranging as a gull. But here she will worry you. You will not know what to say. "You're the only kind of guy who asks me out," she will say. "You and the black boys."

Say nothing. Let her button her shirt. Let her comb her hair, the sound of it stretching like a sheet of fire between you. When her father pulls in and beeps, let her go without too much of a goodbye. She won't want it. During the next hour, the phone will ring. You will be tempted to pick it up. Don't. Watch the shows you want to watch without a family around to debate you. Don't go downstairs. Don't fall asleep. It won't help. Put the government cheese back in its place before your mother kills you.

Ira Glass

Junot Diaz's story is in his book Drown.

[MUSIC - "FINE BROWN FRAME" BY NELLIE LUTCHER]

Act Three. How To Increase Your Value As A Person.

Ira Glass

Act Three, How to Increase Your Value as a Person. Most how-to's make a promise. You're not just going to learn skills. You will be transformed. So, putting together today's program, we thought, what would be the ultimate transformation? What how-to could actually increase the value of human life? And it turns out that we as a society have people whose job it is to think about this very question. And they turned out to be insurance adjusters. Insurance adjusters.

When somebody dies, insurance adjusters review the facts of the case, consider how much juries usually pay for various kinds of lifes and deaths when somebody dies and somebody else is to blame. And then the adjusters recommend how much the insurance company should settle for, what the life was worth. Adam Davidson put together this how-to on how to increase the value of your life.

Adam Davidson

When I was seven, my mom told me about a guy who died because his car blew up. It was the manufacturer's fault, and the man's relatives sued and got about $300,000. I remember wondering about that number. I remember thinking if you were going to assign a number to a human life, it would have to be huge, at least a million. To my seven-year-old mind, a million seemed like the start of the really big numbers.

The other day, I wanted to find out how much my life was worth, so I went to talk to this guy George Karas, an adjuster in Merrillville, Indiana. He looked me over, asked me my stats-- age, job, marital status.

George Karas

Right now, today, I'm willing to pay you $35,000.

Adam Davidson

For my death?

George Karas

For your death. Total.

Adam Davidson

That's crazy.

George Karas

What do you think it's worth?

Adam Davidson

My life, worth less than half a second of one commercial on Seinfeld. George explains it this way-- I'm single, got no dependents. And as far as he's concerned, no one would be all that affected by my death. I argued with him, pointed out my parents need me. I make them laugh. I tease them in a way that nobody else can.

George Karas

How often do they see you?

Adam Davidson

My mom sees me once a month, my dad every three months.

George Karas

Once a month and every three months. How close are you to them? Do you take them out for dinner? Do you always meet them on family holidays? Do you sit around the fireplace with them at night and roast marshmallows?

Adam Davidson

Those things are worth money?

George Karas

Absolutely. Loss of love and affection. In your case, there doesn't appear to be that strong emotional relationship.

Adam Davidson

Why, no, I'm very close to my parents.

George Karas

You see your dad once every three months. Does he send you a picture in between so you remember what he looks like?

Girlfriends don't count.

Adam Davidson

They don't count?

George Karas

Absolutely not.

Adam Davidson

I see my girlfriend every day, and we're madly in love.

George Karas

If you love her that much, marry her. Show her the respect to quit shacking up and marry her. And then she'll count.

Adam Davidson

There's no government chart or general agreement on how much people are worth. If you die and it's someone else's fault, you could be worth as little as a few hundred bucks or as much as a quarter of a billion dollars to your survivors. To come up with a dollar amount for a person's life, insurance adjusters add fixed costs-- medical bills, funeral expenses-- to the more intangible costs, things like loss of comfort, love, affection, guidance.

Obviously figuring out the intangible values is more difficult, but there are basic principles that adjusters and the courts go by. The more people you have dependent on you and the more people you affect positively, the more you're worth. So if you want to increase your value, here's how. Join community groups, tutor some poor kids. Marrying your girlfriend or boyfriend adds a couple million dollars to your value. And while you're at it, have sex with them a lot. Losing the pleasure of sex with you can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Remember, girlfriends don't count. Have a child. That will add another two million. A second or third or fourth child doesn't add anything.

A college degree usually increases your value by millions, same for a high paying professional job. But if you really want to go for the hard cash, the thing to do is suffer. Nothing gets a jury going like misery. Another adjuster, Sarelle Povitsky, explained that to really increase your value after a tragic accident, don't die. Live, but be severely injured.

Sarelle Povitsky

Yeah, right. Brain dead or paraplegic quads, those really demand a lot of money because there's so much future care involved in that. Yeah, the quad is worse because you are really struggling each and every single day.

To increase your value, I would probably say burn. That's the worst injury are burns.

Adam Davidson

Why is that?

Sarelle Povitsky

Because there's no relief from that pain. I mean, they put cream on them, but there's really no relief. There's nothing they can do for you. So I would say burns over most of your body would be--

Adam Davidson

The best way to increase your value.

Sarelle Povitsky

--the best way to increase your value. There's so much pain and suffering with that. And then the next thing would be to be brain dead.

Adam Davidson

An insurance adjuster told me about a young guy driving a truck full of tires. He crashed. The car caught fire, and the tires pinned him inside. He slowly burned to death, begging for his life. He was a menial worker, single, no kids. Normally, the adjuster told me, he wouldn't be worth 30 grand. But his parents got a tremendous settlement because of his suffering. And it struck me, as I heard this, that in financial terms, the last 10 minutes of this man's life were worth more than the whole 25 years that came before.

Anyone who looks at this stuff realizes pretty quickly that there's something irrational in all these schemes. For example, the single most important factor in determining your worth is not who you are, what you've done, who you love. It's the state or county where you die. In general, if you die in a big city, you'll be worth a lot more than if you die in a rural farming community. Juries in big cities are just more generous.

Adjusters say if you're going to die, die in Chicago or New York, preferably the Bronx, LA, Detroit. Florida is pretty good. Avoid New England, especially Maine. Stay away from the Rockies states. Don't die in Utah. You definitely don't want to die anywhere you can see the stars at night.

George Karas, the adjuster in rural Indiana, told me I would be lucky to get 50 grand for my life, but Sarelle, who works in Chicago's Cook County, knew her juries would be more sympathetic.

Sarelle Povitsky

You have this future potential. God only knows where you could have gone with your degree and being a freelance person in communications. The whole world is open to you, and all of that is closed because you've died. So I would say that for sympathy factor, it's possible in Cook County to get a million dollar or better verdict.

Adam Davidson

A million dollars, the price I dreamed of when I was seven. I asked Sarelle what I could do to increase my value even above that. And what she said kind of shocked and disappointed me. Essentially she told me I would have to reinvent myself. In particular, I would have to spend more time outside. It's a peculiar quirk of our legal system that people who enjoy outdoor activities are worth more than people who just stay inside and watch TV.

Sarelle Povitsky

OK, here's what you should do to add value to your life, if you can. If you enjoy swimming or sunsets or gardening, or any of those things that create beauty in the world, try to do that, because that gives you added value.

Adam Davidson

Here's one thing I was thinking of. I like to read sort of obscure plays. I like to read sort of historical plays, which I'd imagine most people really could care less about. What about people who have-- let's say there's a guy, you could say he watches TV all the time, but what he's doing is he's watching videotapes of incredible foreign films. Is that going to--

Sarelle Povitsky

Impact the verdict? No, I don't think so. See, the reason being-- so everybody watches TV and everybody reads. I don't know if it's necessarily the content that's important. The person that we're talking about who's involved in the community, who is very active in sports and loves sunsets, and all that kind of stuff, he gives more to the world than the person who maybe watches historical plays. You know what I mean? It's not content. It's the whole value of the person's life, what they've done with it, how involved they are. That gives you the greater value.

Adam Davidson

Right. Because the things that I feel add value to my life as I experience it, for me-- because I'm not much of an outdoors person-- what I feel adds the richness to my life personally really is reading. It's reading literature, reading nonfiction, and seeing wonderful films. I mean, that's something I really get a lot of deep pleasure.

Sarelle Povitsky

But I don't know that that adds value to your life, because we all do it. I love reading. I love going to movies. That's something you do personally. No one's dependent on you to do that. It's just something you yourself are being enriched from. And I don't know that that would have a great deal of value.

Adam Davidson

So the jocks who I hated in high school and felt were worth less than I was, it turns out they're worth--

Sarelle Povitsky

More. Yeah.

Adam Davidson

We look to systems of rules, to how-to schemes, to create order out of situations that inherently defy rationality. And it always amazes me to think that when this particular system does its job, a check is cut, it has a dollar amount on it, and that's supposed to be the value of somebody's life.

I talked to one adjuster who said that when someone loses a loved one, they don't want money. They want to get rid of their pain. They want that person back. They're angry, and they want whoever caused the death to suffer. But the only thing we can give them is money. That's all we have. That's all we can do.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well this, of course, is the point in our program when we do the credits. And we thought, as part of that, we would have one last how-to. And to help with that how-to, I'd like to welcome to the program my dad, Barry Glass, now a certified public accountant in Baltimore, but in his younger days was a disc jockey in college radio and commercial radio.

Ira Glass

And, Dad?

Barry Glass

Yes.

Ira Glass

Now, when you and I talked about the show, you've had a particular criticism of the way I do the show.

Barry Glass

Well, it was a constructive criticism. Let me put it that way. Let me start by being defensive.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] Well, it was a constructive criticism, which is why I invited you here today.

Barry Glass

And knowing from past experience, when I used to have to do things like closing credits, they get to be very mundane and things you do all the time. And sometimes you just roll right through them without a lot of emotion or maybe without sounding like a lot of caring. And that was my criticism to you.

Ira Glass

Just so people at home can hear, let's just play some credits from a recent show so they can hear what you're talking about.

Ira Glass

Our program produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Day and [? Sohini ?] Davenport.

Ira Glass

Now, Dad, explain to the nonprofessionals, what am I doing wrong there?

Barry Glass

Well, you're just not giving it enough importance. You're anxious to beat the clock or something like that, or to get to a cup of coffee or I don't know what.

Ira Glass

Yeah. So give me some pointers. Give me some how-to.

Barry Glass

Well, I think you just ought to take your time and not rush through it so quickly, and try to give a feeling for the importance of the people who make the show go beside yourself.

Ira Glass

OK, well, why don't you and I split up the credits between us? You have a copy of the script there in front of you. You're speaking to me, I should say, by the way, from the studios of WJHU in Baltimore, the Public Radio affiliate there. And why don't you just start the credits?

Barry Glass

Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and Ira Glass with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Sarah Vowell. Production help today from Rachel Day and [? Sohini ?] Davenport.

Ira Glass

To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago. The phone number, 312-832-3380.

Ira Glass

See? I put in all those pauses. Was that good?

Barry Glass

Yeah. Wonderful.

Ira Glass

312-832-3380. Our email address, [? radio@web.com. ?].

Barry Glass

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Ira Glass

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who reminds you--

Adam Davidson

Don't die in Utah.

Ira Glass

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

Barry Glass

I'm Barry Glass.

Ira Glass

Don't drive like my father.

Barry Glass

Please don't drive like my son.

Sarah Vowell

And don't drive like me.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.