129: Advice

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Ira Glass

Jamie used to ask for Adam's advice. But he didn't want Adam's advice. Back in high school, they would go on these long walks, and Jamie would tell Adam, his best friend, about his various crushes. The crushes were usually on girls who shared two particular qualities. Number one, they were usually really, really pretty. And number two, they had no interest in Jamie, whatsoever.


He'd say like, God, I spent the weekend with Jung. And I kept on wanting to kiss her. But I couldn't kiss her. And every time I thought I could go and kiss her, she'd say, you know, I really think I want to go out with Hampton. And he would say, what should I do? She wants me to go this party next week. Should I go?

I would have nothing to say. I wouldn't know what in the world to say. And so he would say, I don't want advice from you. I want advice from Yakov.

Ira Glass




Ira Glass

Yakov was a commando in the Israeli army, which meant that for years, in his job, he was dropped from a helicopter into the Mediterranean. He would swim ashore, usually into Lebanon, break into a building, rescue hostages. That was his job. Adam got to know him one summer at Israeli summer army camp.


He was the idealized vision of manhood. I mean, I remember specifically, in the Golan, which is the beautiful mountainous region in the north of Israel, we were hiking. And we were talking about different musicians in America. And my friend said, what do you think of Billy Joel? And Yakov said, he's soft.

I mean, up till that second, I really liked Billy Joel. I think I owned every one of his albums. I probably knew all of his songs by heart. And literally, from that second to right now, I can't listen to Billy Joel. Every time I listen to it, I'm like, that is so soft, man. Why is he so soft?

Anyway, so Jamie would ask me advice as Yakov. And it would be a switch this fast. He'd say, what should I do? I'd be like, I don't know, man. And then he'd say, well, I want to hear from Yakov. And right away, I would just say, listen, Jung wants a man, and you're playing like a child. So until you show her a man, how will she want you?

He would say, listen, this party is coming on Saturday. What you are doing is telling Jung, ask her, am I going with you, or I'm just coming to the party? If she says, you're just coming to the party, you say, listen, Jung, I like you. I want to be with you. So you must be very specific, why are you there and why are you wanting to be there. And then it is very simple. It's a transaction, just a man, a woman, what you want, what she wants, end of story.

And I would just become Yakov. These weren't things I could say. They weren't things I knew. I didn't know about being a man or not being a man. I didn't know about what women wanted at that point in my life.

Ira Glass

Wait. You are saying that not only would you do his voice, but he was actually giving advice that you, yourself, would be unable to give?


Yeah, the kinds of things that Yakov would say, I don't think I knew. I certainly wasn't acting like I knew it.

Ira Glass

But even though Adam would give this advice, even though he would become another person, channel the voice and personality of an Israeli commando for Jamie, even though he did all of that, Jamie still would not take the advice. Which raises the question, what does it take? Who among us, my friend, has not had someone who begged them for advice. And we gave them the advice. And in fact, everyone we knew gave them the same advice, and still they did not act.

Think of the advice that you have given in your life, my friend. When we give advice we witness the puniness of reason when compared with the vastness of human desire and emotion.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, most of it was recorded in front of live audiences in Seattle, Washington, and Aspen, Colorado, thanks to public radio station KUOW in Seattle and to HBO's US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

Today on our program, advice, stories of people trying to give each other advice and why advice is so rarely taken. Act One, Sleepless in Seattle. Writer Sarah Vowell breaks a number of deeply held personal beliefs, and does something she generally tries to avoid. She asks other people for advice, in this case about insomnia. Act Two, Advise and Consent. Some thoughts on why people hardly ever take each other's advice. And Seattle's own Dan Savage has advice for everyone that may save lives. We hope it does. Act Three, Guided Meditation. Cheryl Trykv helps us all unlock the sap that is contained in our inner tree. Also throughout this hour, music from the Black Cat Orchestra, who are with us on stage in Seattle. Stay with us.

Act One: Sleepless In Seattle

Ira Glass

Act One, Sleepless in Seattle. So what happens if you actually take the advice people give you, all of it? Sarah Vowell recently conducted a personal experiment where she did exactly that. She is the author of the book Radio On and a contributing editor to our program.

Sarah Vowell

I'm holding a baby picture in my hand, the portrait kind from Sears. It's me and my twin sister, Amy. And we're maybe three, dressed alike. She's crying. Amy is this flashing light, blond hair, blue eyes, white tears. And I have one distinguishing characteristic that makes me different from any baby in any picture I've ever seen, dark circles under my eyes. As if I was holding down the swing shift at the tire factory in addition to my official duties as a baby.

My mother says that when I was small, she'd wake up in the middle of the night and find me calmly playing with my toys. Once when I was 18 months old, she got up to check on me and panicked when she saw the front door swinging open. She found me outside, crawling around the pasture, giggling.

I continued to sneak out as a sleepless teenager. Most nights I would go for a walk around 3:00 AM, which was lovely and starlit and safe in Bozeman, Montana. Now I live in Chicago, a city which proudly just edged out New York's murder rate. Don't call us the Second City. So the 3:00 AM joy walks aren't an option anymore. Not that I mind being up at all hours. It's the exhaustion that gets to me. And so recently, I decided enough.

I'm not the advice seeking, therapy going, professional help getting kind, working under the theory that I know my problems and I am unwilling to change. But to overthrow insomnia, I'd break my personal declarations of independence and ask for help. I'd give it five days, I thought, a work week. I am can do when a job is involved.

Day one, Mom. The last time I took advice from my mother I was in high school. She forced me to take a typing class, arguing it might come in handy in later life. And I've never quite forgiven her for being right. But she's a bit an insomniac herself. I called her up, and asked for suggestions on how to handle it.

Sarah Vowell's Mom

As I have gotten older, I've learned to drink my herbal tea.

Sarah Vowell

So far so good. Herbal tea, sensible, basic, the boiling of water, Maybe this advice thing isn't as scary as I thought. But Mom's just getting warmed up.

Sarah Vowell's Mom

First of all, first of all, do some real serious soul searching.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, god.

I have a policy about that word, soul. It is strictly prohibited, except in cases of conversations having to do with okra recipes and Marvin Gaye. My mom doesn't observe these simple, common sense restrictions.

Sarah Vowell's Mom

You're supposed to get rid of anything that might be bothering you. I'm talking about things that you need to let go of, things that, in the past, that maybe have upset you or hurt you, that you're still hanging on to. You know what I'm saying?

Sarah Vowell

No, you mean in the new-agey sense, like emotional problems?

Sarah Vowell's Mom

No, Sarah, I don't think you have an emotional problem.

Sarah Vowell

Translation, yes, Sarah, I do think you have an emotional problem. Normally, any soul searching on my part is purely accidental. And it's always brought on by a liquid other than herbal tea. So I brew some chamomile, telling myself that, in the right light, it looks a lot like Scotch. I sip three cups and search my soul for deep thoughts. I got nothing.

So I try something else. I put on a Billie Holiday song called "Why Was I Born?" Two minutes and 48 seconds later, I realize that perhaps I'm confusing introspection with depression. Soul searching, how do you even know if you're doing it right? I mean, how searched is searched?

I try another approach. John Ehrlichman's obituary was just in the paper. And I decide to take a personal inventory by comparing my soul with his. Guess what? I come out on top. Now do the math with me. The occasional late payment on my college loans, Watergate. Periodic participation in obnoxious public radio pledge drives, secret bombing of Cambodia. I can't sleep, he can't breathe.

And I fall into sleep immediately, and drift off into the sleep of the just. But the depressing thing is, I wake up four hours later and never get back to bed. So I cross soul searching and herbal tea off the list. Sorry, Mom.

Day two, the doctor. I seek professional help from a doctor at the University of Chicago's sleep disorder lab, one Wallace Mendelson, professor of psychiatry and medicine.

Wallace Mendelson

Well, there's, depending on exactly how you divide things up, 30 or 40 different basic kinds of illnesses of sleep. Among the many causes of insomnia is a condition that's sometimes called psychophysiological or conditioned insomnia.

Sarah Vowell

I don't know if he is a good doctor. But I can tell you this. If his patients want him to help them get to sleep, all they have to do is sit him down with a tape recorder, and ask him to say a few words about his job.

Anyway, though he refuses to give me any personal advice, arguing that I'm not his patient, I do manage to squeeze a few pointers out of him for someone, maybe one of those psychophysio-whatchamacallits.

Wallace Mendelson

For that particular subgroup of people, one of the things that can be helpful is to try to strip the bed and the bedroom of any associations, except for sleeping and loving.

Sarah Vowell

Loving? Somehow he makes that word sound so dirty. But that night, I take Dr. Mendelson's advice and clear everything out of my bedroom, half of which contains my bed, the other half of which just so happens to function as my office.

And I'll be precise now, because this is science. I remove 78 books, stacking them in front of the closet in the other room. I transport 15 pens, a turntable, a transistor radio, a tape recorder, and 23 magazines. I take away dozens of scraps of paper, some of which were handily stored on and in the bed, itself. I unplug the computer and the fax machine, and lug them out. And clearing away all this dusty stuff takes two Kleenex filled hours.

Then I get into bed-- in the nude, because the stacks of books are blocking the closet where I keep my pajamas-- and I think about what a mess the living room is, and how I'm going to have to haul all that crap back in here tomorrow. And I never get more than about 30 minutes straight of sleep, though somewhere in there I managed to have a dream in which my bedroom is empty because I got robbed.

Day three, the internet. Doctors and mothers and friends, so old-fashioned, so 20th century. If I want an insomnia-free future, I must look to the future, to the World Wide Web. It promises so much. I do a search on insomnia. The first thing I find is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It posits the three main causes of insomnia are old age, depression, and female gender. Well, no wonder I can't solve my little problem.

Then I log on to something called the Virtual Hospital at In the insomnia advice section, one of its suggestions is, don't engage in stimulating activity before bed. Examples include playing a competitive game of cards or watching an exciting program on television.

I decide to take this advice and avoid exciting programs on television. Which means one thing, turn on the Tonight Show. Jay Leno's monologue features innovative humor about airlines and Viagra and Linda Tripp. A hilarious skit called "Presidential Jeopardy" pits Abe Lincoln and George Washington against president Clinton, who scores big in the Hooters waitresses category. Then one of those animal guys comes out with a tiger. The conversation goes like this. Jay Leno, these must be pretty endangered. Animal Guy, yeah, they are.

I am asleep before the musical guest comes out. This advice is working the best so far. I stay asleep for five whole hours. Does everyone know about this, that maybe this is the reason Leno's ratings are better than Letterman's?

Day four. A day without caffeine is like-- I'm sure I could come up with a good analogy, but I'm just too tired. Consensus, or should I say, conspiracy? Every last one of my sources-- my mom, my friend, the doctor, the web-- advises against caffeine, which is a problem in that I have been addicted to coffee since I was 15. I no longer drink nearly as much as I used to. But still, my motto, sine coffea nihil sum, without coffee, I'm nothing.

So today I'm planning on nothing. I go cold turkey, starting with a brisk pot of peppermint tea at 8:30. By 10:15, I'm splayed on the couch with a cardigan sweater wrapped around my eyes.

My head throbs. And the phone rings every 15 minutes. One of the calls is from a telemarketer, who somehow makes me cry.

At 12:38, I crawl over to the cabinet where I keep the coffee can and sniff its contents. It is a very long day. And guess what? It doesn't work. Thank god. What if I had to do this again? I'm up all night watching the clock, waiting for morning, when I can make coffee. At 5:00 AM, I tell myself, close enough, and suck down six cups before 5:15.

Now that reason is restored, I come to this conclusion. If there is anything worse than insomnia, it's taking advice about insomnia. Being up in the middle of the night is kind of nice, actually. It's quiet and dark, and the phone doesn't ring. You can listen to records and weirder movies are on TV. I've never known another life, and now I'm not so sure I want to.

One of my earliest memories is listening to my dad in the middle of the night. He'd be opening and closing kitchen cabinets, stirring bicarbonate of soda into a glass. I was awake. He was awake. And he seeing no need to fix it. In the middle of the night, lying in bed, he invents these machines I don't pretend to understand.

Sarah Vowell's Dad

I'm kind of working on a spoke-duplicating lathe. It's really cool. I drew a picture this morning when I woke up. You just feel sorry for those people that slept all night and didn't accomplish anything.

Sarah Vowell

We are flawed creatures, all of us. Some of us think that means we should fix our flaws. But get rid of my flaws, and there would be no one left. If I looked in the mirror someday and saw no dark circles under my eyes, I'd probably look better. I just wouldn't look like me. Thank you.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell. Coming up, breezy advice pretending to be serious, serious advice pretending to be breezy. Will you be able to tell the difference? That is in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two: Advise And Consent

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and invite a variety of writers and performers and reporters to tackle that theme. Today's program, Advice. A show recorded in front of live audiences in Aspen and Seattle. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Advise and Consent. Let's go to the tape.

There are the times that people give each other advice, and then there are the times that people actually take advice. And they are very different times. And so let us now sort out one from the other. Let us create a taxonomy. Let us name the different species of advice, so we do not confuse ourselves as we go forward from this day.

For help with this, I turned to someone who is an expert on advice, someone who has devoted her entire life to solving other people's problems, my mother. That's the cheapest joke I have ever made in public. Suddenly I'm like Shecky Greene up here.

My mom is actually a clinical psychologist, publishes original research, is quoted in newspapers and magazines, until recently, did the advice column for America Online. And she tells this story.

Shirley Glass

Well, I had a patient that loved Susan Forward when she was big on the radio.

Ira Glass

This is a radio therapist.

Shirley Glass

Right. And this patient was just making a mess out of her life, just doing everything that was not in her interest. So I said, well, let's do a role reversal. I'll be you and you be Susan Forward. And so I presented the problem from the patient's point of view. And the patient, as Susan Forward, could tell me exactly what she should be doing.

And then the lights go on. And then she says, well, I know what I should do. But obviously, I'm having trouble doing it, which is at the core.

Ira Glass

People have trouble taking advice. The whole process of therapy is the long process of getting people to the point where they can actually take the advice that any reasonable person would give them.

Shirley Glass

There's one thing that is very interesting about giving advice. And there's been some research to support this, that people who give advice feel terrific afterwards, and the people who receive the advice, particularly when it's unsolicited, feel terrible. So what we've learned from this research is that advice is really terrific for the advice giver. And it's not so good for the advice receiver.

Ira Glass

Either way, giving them the right advice has nothing to do with whether or not they will take the advice. This is garden variety advice.

Then there's the advice provided by our nation's burgeoning advice industry, which includes therapists, self help books, advice columns in newspapers. And so in preparation for today's show, I talked to Dan Savage, who has been an advice columnist for eight years in The Stranger, here in Seattle and around the country. And he is going to be out here in person in a few minutes. But when we talked on tape a few weeks ago, he expressed this cheerful view of his chosen profession.

Ira Glass

Dan, when you write the column, do you think people take the advice?

Dan Savage

Not usually. No. But most of the time, I don't think people take advice from anybody. People seek advice to sort of suss out all the possibilities, all their possible choices, and then very often just do what they would have done to begin with, without asking anyone for advice. So no, I think most of the time people don't take my advice. They don't take anyone's advice.

Ira Glass

Well, if people don't take advice, then why put yourself in a job where you're giving advice for a living?

Dan Savage

Because it pays well.

Ira Glass

Advice columns, Dan says, are not, not, not about giving advice.

Dan Savage

And when you think about it, one person sent in a question. But the column is being read by millions of other people who didn't ask the question, who aren't in that situation, who don't have that problem. Why are those millions of other people reading? Schadenfreude or they're reading for pleasure. They're reading because other people's problems are entertaining. They are reading to be titillated. And if you write a good advice column, you do do all those things.

So in one way, it's not a racket, if you focus on what an advice column actually does, which is not give advice.

Ira Glass

Dan, I have to say, was unrelenting on this point. I asked him, is he happy when he comes up with some right, good advice for somebody? No. He's happy when he thinks of something funny to say in the column.

OK. Why does he quote actual experts in the column if he's not trying to give people actual advice? His answer, to give the column the appearance of an advice column.

Dan Savage

I pretend to write an advice column, is how I feel about it. And there are times when I'm pretending to write my advice column where it sounds a lot like an advice column.

Ira Glass

He also told me this one incredible thing about the advice column business, about the letters that people send in asking for advice.

Dan Savage

When you write an advice column, one of the secrets of the genre is the letter will include the advice that, ultimately, you give. The letter will say, here's my problem. And I don't know what to do. This is what I think I should do. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And so you have to cut that paragraph. Otherwise, you're just going to repeat it.

Because very often, the person knows exactly what they have to do. They do have to leave their husband, or they do have to turn their kid in to the cops, or they do have to get their nipples pierced, or whatever.

Ira Glass

And how often does that happen, that they actually include the answer in their letter?

Dan Savage

Like 25% of the time.

Ira Glass

But there's another category of advice to include in our little taxonomy. In the last year, on two different occasions, I've turned to my father to ask for advice. And these are two of the first times that I have actually turned to him for direct advice, really, since I was a kid.

So the first of these times, I asked for advice about whether or not to buy or lease a car. And the second time, I needed advice on setting up a 401(k). And my dad is this business guy. He is an accountant. He gives people advice like this all day long. And each time, he sat at his desk in his office. And he asked me some questions. And he ran some numbers. And then he told me what to do. And I did it.

And each time there was this very real intimacy to it. They were intimate conversations. There is a real intimacy to real advice, when it actually happens. There is something about putting your fate in someone else's hands, and saying, I need help. I need your help. Help me. Help me. Here I am. I need you.

Dan Savage

And you were going to him for advice about this thing that didn't have anything to do with emotional life, yours or his. Yet it affected your emotional life in a real way.

Ira Glass


Dan Savage

And that's what is moving about it, actually. And it's very male, I think, very hetero male, that you were able to have an emotional bond with your father, but you had to have this sort of MacGuffin to bond over that had nothing to do with feelings, just numbers.

Ira Glass

Yeah, but I think it points to the power of what advice is. I mean, it kind of doesn't matter what it is about. It could be about anything.

Dan Savage

That's true.

Ira Glass

See, but this whole idea of the intimacy of giving advice, like in a personal setting, that you would actually turn to somebody and say, I don't know what to do. Help me out. The intimacy of that is so powerful, that I feel like, in a way, the difference between that act and what happens in an advice column is the same thing as the difference between, you know, having sex with somebody in private and what happens in a porno film.

Dan Savage

I think that's absolutely true. An advice column is a public performance of a private act. And just as appearing in pornos betrays something about the person appearing in it-- if you're the kind of person who appears in pornos, it tells people things about you, good and bad. I think also being the kind of person who seeks advice out in a public format tells the listener or the reader something about you, good or bad. I certainly think when I've heard Dr. Laura's show, I think who are these idiots who would call this woman?

Ira Glass

Well, now to give advice to all of us in a public forum, whatever it is that makes us, author of the advice column "Savage Love" and the book made for those columns, please welcome Dan Savage.

Dan Savage

Usually it goes like this. You're watching some drunk in a bar scream at his date. His face is red. He's standing, she's sitting, it's ugly. And you look. You can't help it. And suddenly, he sees you seeing him. And then he asks, what are you looking at?

You can be from another country. You can be a very young child. And still, the first time you're asked this question, you know it's a trick question. What are you looking at? It's a baboon thing to do, really, a way for an insecure monkey to reassure himself that he's the alpha male. He's challenging you, smaller and weaker monkey, to see if you have the guts to tell him, bigger and drunker monkey, the truth.

You're looking at a jerk. Deep down, he knows he's a jerk. And now he knows you know. He was attracting attention to himself acting like a jerk. That's what you were looking at.

"What are you looking at" can have an added element of terror at times for gay men, because sometimes we look at guys who aren't acting like baboons. Sometimes we just look. And sometimes a guy, who might not want to be looked at, will catch us looking. In these circumstances, what are you looking at usually equals I saw what you were looking at, faggot.

Instead of him knowing you know he's a jerk. You know he knows you're a fag. And you blame yourself, of course, vestigial shame. You got sloppy checking out some straight guy's butt, and you got caught. It's not even the looking so much that gives us away, but the nervousness, this fear of getting caught, that makes our looks different and distinguishable from the looks that straight men give each other.

Of course, not all straight men mind being looked at by gay men. Some find our attentions flattering, hipsters, porn stars, public radio personalities.

But violence so often follows this kind of "what are you looking at" that even when it doesn't, you still get the adrenaline shock and the adrenaline hangover and the adrenaline flashbacks. It's like a conditioned response. I expect that Matthew Shepard was asked what he was looking at by the two straight guys that beat him to death.

Now in some places you can safely assume all the men are gay. Health clubs, Manhattan, Ikea. You can look just as much and just as obviously as you like. But in most places, self preservation requires you to assume that all the guys are straight. High school, Wyoming, Sears. If you're going to check the guys out at Sears, you need to look straight yourself. And you need to look like you ain't looking.

One of the ways gay men spot each other in straight land is by waiting for the glance, the look that looks without looking. If a straight guy at Sears wants to look at you, he'll just turn and face you. No nerves, no sidelong glances. He just looks.

But a gay guy who wants to look at a guy at Sears-- who he thinks might be gay, but isn't sure about since he is at Sears-- he won't turn. He keeps his head straight as he passes. His eyeballs, however, follow you as you walk by, moving into their far corners. But he doesn't turn his head. If you're gay, you do the same. Your eyeballs follow his, but you keep looking straight ahead as you pass.

Actually, this is a complicated dynamic. And I'd like to demonstrate. Can I have a volunteer from the audience? Bring up the lights for a second. This theater seats about 1,600. And according to the actuarial tables for public radio crowd this size, there should be one straight man.

Did you raise your hand, sir? Now how lucky for us, he is in the front row. Why don't you come right up here? It's you, darling, sweetheart. Come on. The show's--

Dan Savage

OK. We're going to do this look, just you and me. It's going to be very special. What's you're name? This is--



Dan Savage

Do you pledge to public radio?


I do now.

Dan Savage

You do now. Can I have your credit card? We'll just return it after-- go stand right there. Turn around. No, show them your butt, not me your butt. OK.

Straight guys are always so quick to show you their ass. It's the great forbidden straight guy zone, that once the opportunity presents itself.

Dan Savage

Don't look at me. We're at Sears. We're going to walk past each other. We're both gay. Just pretend. We're walking past each other. Our eyes meet. Right? Our heads don't turn. Our eyes meet, our eyes meet, our eyes meet. When we get past each other, our eyes hurt. Eye strain, eye strain. And then we turn and look.

Only after passing each other, do you turn and look. All gay men do this. We do it all the time. If the guy you're walking by doesn't lock eyes and doesn't turn once you've passed him, you know he is not gay. If the guy looks once you have passed him, it means he's gay, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he's interested. He could just be checking to see if you're checking him out. You might be doing the same, checking to see if he is checking you out, when you're not interested, which means that you could both be looking, but neither of you are actually interested.

Now imagine doing this every day whenever you pass a man for the rest of your life, whether you're interested in him or not. Eye strain is basically 80% of the gay lifestyle.

Now checking out a guy you're pretty sure is straight is a lot riskier. Some straight men, though, you've got to look at. They're too pretty. Asking for it. It's true.

But I recently discovered something that allows me to check out straight guys without risk, without fear. And it works every time. I offer it here today as a public service. I am an advice columnist, and as my regular readers know, I'm interested in just one thing, helping others. And this is advice that could help save lives. Gay men, carry this thing wherever you go, and guys will assume you're straight always. You could be in a supermarket wearing a dress and clogs, filling your grocery cart with butter flavored Crisco. But if you've got this thing with you, you are straight.

I speak, of course, of the human infant. My boyfriend, Terry, will walk out on stage now and strap a baby backpack, filled to the brim with baby, to my back. You'll scare the prop. He can't see you. Sh.

My boyfriend and I adopted a baby about 11 months ago. This is not our baby. I would not exploit my baby like this. This is an actor. This baby has a SAG card and made more money this year than you did.

Now after we adopted the baby, I don't remember when I realized that the baby, in addition to being the best thing that ever happened to us, the apple of our eyes, also functions as a get out of gay bashing free card. But I realized it soon after we brought him home. And I realized it at the supermarket.

Picking through the produce with the baby strapped to my back, I paused to check out a guy a little ways down the aisle. He turned, caught me looking, and before I could look away, he smiled. He wasn't gay. He had a girl hanging on him. There was red meat and beer in this cart. And he didn't give me a nervous glance. He just turned and looked.

I didn't know what to make of him. He kept smiling at me. Was he bisexual? Beer, red meat, well dressed, no. Not bisexual.

Then it hit me. He assumed I was straight too. And he smiled to be polite. He thought we met in straight land somewhere-- at school or at work-- and he couldn't remember where he knew me from. But to be on the safe side, and so as not to offend me, he smiled and nodded. Hey, how are you doing, he said, instead of, what are you looking at? Hey, how ya' doing is never a trick question. It's straight guy--

So many people have this impulse to put their hands over my mouth. I don't understand. Small children. Hey, how ya' doing is never a trick question. It's straight guy code for you are one of us.

The next time I was at the supermarket with the baby, it happened again. I looked, got caught, got smiled at. Pretty soon, I wasn't sneaking peeks anymore. I was checking out straight guys on the street, in airports, in restaurants. So long as I had the baby on my back, I could look at straight guys as boldly as any straight guy would look at a straight guy. I suffer no more eye strain. And it's all, hey, how ya' doing, and never, what are you looking at? I mean, admit it. Don't I look straight? Straighter now than when I first walked on stage?

I will now put on a pink tutu. Even in a pink tutu, don't I look straight? I quickly progressed from checking out straight guys to flirting with straight guys. It became a game. They assumed I was straight because I had this baby, this monstrous, rotten, awful, stinking baby.

They assumed I was straight because I had this baby with me. OK. How far could I take this? How gay could I act and still be thought straight? Could I ask him what gymnasium he attended? Yes. Could I compliment his shirt? Yes. Could I work the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music into conversation and still be thought straight? Yes.

Ironically, when I'm with the baby, the only people I get what are you looking at attitude from are other gay men. Sometimes I'll see a cute little fag boy, forget the baby is on my back, give him the walk past, turn, look, look. Like the straight guys at the supermarket, the gay men on the street assume I'm straight. And if they catch me looking, they assume I'm a closet case, and the most contemptible kind, married, kids, out cruising for sex with the baby.

But take my advice, guys. You want to pass, get a baby. It works everywhere. We live near a park-- me and my boyfriend, and our useful baby-- and a couple of high school soccer teams practice and play games at the park near our house. But before the baby came, I wouldn't stop and stare. But now, I sit in the stands, baby on my back, and I watch them play. The baby babbles, the sun sets-- the other dads, some of them not too hard on the eyes, themselves-- turn to me. They smile, they nod. I'm one of them. I smile back. Hey, I say, how you doing? Thank you.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage.


Act Three: Guided Meditation

Ira Glass

The Black Cat Orchestra. Act Three, Guided Meditation. To send us all out of here with a moment of reflection, a time for us to pause and look inside, and think about some of what we've learned, please welcome writer and performer Cheryl Trykv.

Cheryl Trykv

We all here tonight live on planet Earth. Now that's a fact. And when we move the letter H off the end of that planet Earth, and put it back at the top where it belongs, what have we got? Heart. Now let me ask you this, on the solar map, who are Earth's immediate neighbors? Mars and Venus. What does that tell us? That we've got war on one side, and on the other side love. So you see, we actually want to move away from Mars, not toward it. NASA doesn't seem to see it that way. NASA thinks Mars is the next big thing. But why should it be? Let me tell you something. NASA is run by a bunch of meat-eaters.

Tonight, I'd like you to join me in an exercise designed to help us release these terror-torial hostilities created by the meat eaters, and rather embody the virtues of Venus. Blabbidy, blabbidy, blah, blah, blah.

So let's take a deep breath. Fill your lungs. Hold it. And release all the day's negativity. Maybe you couldn't be comped to be here tonight and had to pay full ticket price. Release that resentment. Take another deep breath. Hold it. And release. Maybe you parked illegally outside, and yours is [UNINTELLIGIBLE] they will tow. Don't worry. They will. Release that canker worm of care. Take a final deep breath. Hold it. Maybe you had to share the dressing room with a sex pervert. Mirror hog. And release.

Now, I'm going to count from one to 8,000. And by the time I reach 7,011, you're going to find yourself in a very deep sleep. Are you ready? One, you are relaxing. Two, becoming more and more relaxed. Three, terribly, terribly relaxed. Four, so relaxed it's uncanny. Five, [MUTTERS] 7,998, terribly, terribly relaxed. 7,999, barely a pulse. 8,000. Good.

Now let's navigate the psychic arena that templates every day reality. So let's find ourselves at the sideshow carnival. Conjure the image. That's right. And as we fight our way through the crowd of teen runaways and raving drag queens whacked out on fen-phen, perhaps you'll notice that all the players in the scene are facets of ourselves. And perhaps you'd like to ask yourself, where is that screaming coming from? For an answer, let's move over to the pig man's tent. Conjure the image. See the mystic horror as the pig man wipes his odd little tail with the sleeve of his Burberry shirt. See the pig man's fat little hands, his scrambly fingers. Perhaps his feet are a little like your own.

Don't look away. Meet your inner guide. Now ask the pig man whatever you'd like, but be prepared, he may reveal something you don't want to hear. Listen carefully. Beneath the squealing gibberish-- that's right-- is a message just for you. [PIG SQUEALING] Eat more fish. More fish, eat it.

As we exit the tent and make our way back to the midway, please stay with the group. Now is not the time to wander off by yourselves. Perhaps you're looking for a private retreat to visit, so you can contemplate the possible, if any, meaning of your personal journey. Fine. We'll all go.

Find inside a beautiful, secret garden. Take a moment to conjure the image. Secret garden, that's right. Lush. Feel free to be as detailed as possible. [LAUGHS] Oh, those hydrangea make me laugh. Who put those there?

Oh, look. A babbling brook. Why, it won't shut up. Our talkative little friend needs to be dammed. See yourself consulting with your own engineers, drawing up plans for your own inner barrier, your own private Hoover Dam. See your own workers walking the scaffold high above voluminous vats of wet concrete. Perhaps you'd like to ask yourself, are my workers union?

Now let's just sit for a moment and enjoy all we've created. Gradually, we begin to discover, perhaps to our surprise, what a glorious, all-purpose secret garden this is. But let's just sit, contemplate, give thanks. All right. Let's go. Keep it moving.

Now, I'm going to count backwards from 8,000 to one. And when you hear the number one, you will awake. And intuitively, you will want to eat more fish. And our numbers will grow and form a huge block of voting power. Are you ready? 8,000, coming up slowly. 7,999, slowly now. Don't hurt yourselves. 7,998, slowly, I'm not joking. [MUTTERS] Three, two, and one. Thank you.

Ira Glass

Ms. Cheryl Trykv.


Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and myself with Nancy Updike. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].


Our stage crew includes [? David Saxton, ?] [? Emmett Kaiser ?], [? Amy McGill, ?] [? Jonathan Saltz, ?] and Steve [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Our signers, [? Ann Delvecchio ?] and [? Molly McQuire. ?] The Black Cat Orchestra, Don Crevie, Lori Goldston, Scott Granlund, Kyle Hanson, Russell Meltzer, Matthew Sperry, [? Joseph Saenz ?].

To buy a cassette of this program or any of our shows, call us back home at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.


WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who asks--

Dan Savage

Admit it. Even in a pink tutu, don't I look straight?

Ira Glass

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


PRI, Public Radio International.