411: First Contact

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Ira Glass

So is that Marc.

Marc Holmes

Yes, that's Marc speaking for Scott.

Ira Glass

So Scott, you were born without hearing, right?

Marc Holmes

That's correct. Even though my parents didn't know that until I was 18 months old.

Ira Glass

This is a very strange interview because you can't hear and because I have a terrible cold, I can't speak.

Marc Holmes

Marc gets the burden here.

Ira Glass


I talked with Scott Krepel through his interpreter, Marc Holmes-- they were in a studio in Washington, DC-- about what happened when Scott was 11 or 12 and the government approved the use of cochlear implants in children. So Scott got an implant. He was excited. He thought he'd fit in better at school, have more friends, date girls. And of course, he tried to imagine what it would be like to hear.

Marc Holmes

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. The best analogy I can think of is maybe, I was hoping that it would be like that speech was like telepathy, instant thought transfer.

Ira Glass

So he had the surgery and then he went to the audiologist to configure the device and what they do is that they hook up the implant to a machine.

Marc Holmes

To send different frequencies, pulses, to try and stimulate the different parts in my cochlea. Trying to figure out which one worked.

Ira Glass

And so the first sounds that you hear are those pulses?

Marc Holmes


Ira Glass

And what do they sound like?

Marc Holmes

The first time I heard something, I can remember very vividly because it wasn't really-- it didn't feel like hearing. It felt more like a vibration in my whole body. I was sitting there and nothing was happening except for like a little thing that was tingling throughout my body. But eventually after a while, the vibrations localized to my ears.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see. The first vibrations, you couldn't even tell that they were coming in through your ears.

Marc Holmes

Right. I didn't really know that it was sound itself at first. And eventually I came to realize, wait a minute, this must be it. The audiologist just sent me on my way with the cochlear implant on.

Ira Glass

We can only make an educated guess what this really sounds like. As best as we understand it from people who could once hear and then later in life got the implants, there's a mechanical edge to the sound that you hear with these devices. Musical notes have to be nearly half an octave apart before you can tell the difference between the notes. Voices, people say that they sound like a robot Daffy Duck. But for Scott, his brain had never developed the neural pathways to process audio. There were two big problems that went beyond all of that.

Marc Holmes

One was that I couldn't understand any of the sounds. It was just all noise that did not have any ability to distinguish.

Ira Glass

Am I understanding you right, if someone was looking right at you and you were seeing their mouth moving, talking directly to you, you actually couldn't tell which of the sounds was the sound of their voice coming out of their mouth?

Marc Holmes

It would depend on the environment. Because if it was an environment where there was other noises, then I wouldn't really be able to pick out the person's voice from that background.

Ira Glass

If a dog barked or a horn honked, he couldn't tell what the sounds were or what caused them. A doctor who does these implants told me about a very young patient of his, a child who got the implant and then would just flush the toilet over and over, kind of amazed to connect the sound that it made with the action of the thing that they were seeing.

I was interested in Scott because although I know lots of deaf people say they have no need to learn to hear and they're fine as they are and they frown on this procedure, Scott is somebody who wanted this to work. He imagined what is going to be like. And our show today, our radio show today is all stories where people are trying to make contact for the first time with something that they have never encountered or experienced. And Scott's situation seemed like a particularly harsh example of that. The reality was so far from what he had expected. His second big problem with implants was he didn't have the ability to ignore any sounds.

Marc Holmes

Well if you're sitting in your office and you listen carefully, you might hear things like the computer fan running, or your own movements, or for many different things. And most people have trained themselves to ignore those noises. I had none of that ability. So everything ended up overwhelming me without me being able to stop it or ignore it.

Ira Glass

For somebody like Scott getting the implant as his age, his brain can never catch up and learn to process sound. After five years with the implant, it was still hard for him to focus if an air conditioner was on in the room. And as for recognizing words, if he was in a quiet room and his speech therapist would say a word to him, he could actually pick out the word from a list of words that were sitting in front of him, and that's about as good as it got. So at the end of high school, he stopped using the implant. He doesn't miss it. The only time he really liked it he says was that very first day when he had his first contact with sound.

Marc Holmes

I think the first time I heard that was cool, things like, oh I can clink the cookie jar, but it got old very fast.

Ira Glass

Well today on our show, First Contact, we have three stories of people in that frightening, thrilling, first moment of encounter, that leap into the unknown. Mike Birbiglia talks about an achievement that was literally years in the making for him. We have somebody also chatting his way into the lives of people very far away in the middle of a war, we have scientists pondering exactly what we should say the very first time we find extraterrestrials to talk to, and what boneheaded things people want to say to them. From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass, still with a little cold this week, but feeling just fine. Stay with us.

Act One: Error at First Base

Ira Glass

OK, I don't know why this came to mind, out the blue actually. Three weeks ago I was walking down the street, it was nighttime, I was with the dog, and I thought of this. And literally loud I said out loud, "Oh god. Oh God, no, no, no." Here's what I remembered.

In junior high school, I was really, really young. I tried to feel up a girl in front of her family. Somehow I thought I could get away with this. We were watching a Jerry Lewis movie on TV in their rec room. I remember that. I had never touched a girl before, so I don't know why I thought this was going to happen. Anyway, so when this came back to me, it was really just as horrifying. I mean, even as I talk about it now. It's just as horrifying as it should have been the day it happened. And I bring this all up to say, we are all so clueless as we learn about making out and sex and all that stuff. And we begin our show today with a story from Mike Birbiglia. Nothing explicit happens here at all, but it still might not be right for every young listener.

Mike Birbiglia

In seventh grade people started making out with each other, and I remember this very well because I remember thinking people we know are making out with other people we know! But how? It just seemed like this alien ritual, where these two aliens kind of attach orifices all of a sudden. And I was like, I am not doing that. And collectively all the girls in my class were like, that is fine. You are not on the list. You are not exactly a first round draft pick for our new activity.

It just seemed gross to me, making out. It's like watching a dog eat spaghetti. So I wasn't going to make out with anyone and I was fine with that. But then it started to sort of create factions in the seventh grade class, sort of the make out club and the non-make out club. I mean these weren't formal organizations, that would be very sad. A meeting of the non-make out club. I call this meeting to order. First order of business, Nintendo.

The non-make out club, we had a hard time because we were losing good people by the day. I feared that soon I would be the lone member of the non-make out club. So I was, I need to join the make out club. But I didn't have any real prospects. I mean I had this one girl who I had a huge crush on who sat in front of me in class named Lisa Bizetti. And she had to talk to me on the phone every night about homework thanks t alphabetical order. So one time I said something that made her laugh and I was like, oh, this is great. Like I gotta do that more. And then one time she was actually laughing so hard and she said, Mike, you gotta stop. I'm going to pee myself. I was like, wow. It was the closest I'd ever come to a vagina. So I spent the next 15 years trying to get Lisa Bizetti to pee. And that's how I ended up here.

So one time I built up the courage to ask Lisa to go to a carnival with me. And she said, yes. And I was so excited about this. I had this idea that we would go to the carnival and I would win her a giant stuffed bear. And we would go on rides, and then we'd make out. Like really simple, just like the romantic comedy montages. And I took her on a ride called the Scrambler. And I don't know if you have the Scrambler where you live. I imagine you do. It travels on a truck.

The premise is that you sit on the two-person pod with the person you're in love with, and then that pod goes in a circle. Which is part of an even larger circle, which is part of an even grander circle. As I understand it, it was originally designed as a medical device for people who have sharp objects stuck in their throat to help them purge the objects. It was called a Puke Your Facerator. And it was very successful. And then it was co-opted by the carnival workers of America-- CWoA.


And they said, we like it, but we feel like the name is something of a turn off. And then one guy goes, well, what about the Scrambler? And they're like, nailed it. But who is going to be in charge of this dangerous piece of equipment? And then one guy goes, well, I have a nephew who's 16-years-old and smokes pot 24 hours a day. I feel like he might be available. And they're like, he sounds amazing. We don't even need to interview him. He sounds completely qualified.

So we sit down on the Scrambler and Lisa's snuggling up next to me. And I was thinking, like, this is it. This is where it's at all going to happen. But I think that when you're 12-years-old, you just don't understand certain things about the digestive system. You don't know that you shouldn't eat popcorn and peanuts and funnel cake and cotton candy and then go on a machine that scrambles your body. Cotton candy being the most insane of these items.

It's basically like saying, we're going to take sugar, which everyone knows is bad. But then we'll dress it up like insulation. And I'm like, I'm not sure what he selling point is there. Is it the sugar or the insulation? So I know from the moment they put the bar seat belt down that I am going to throw up for sure. The bar seat belt is not a very reassuring piece of safety equipment. That has never saved anyone's life. I mean, come one. I mean I think the only thing it's ever done right is just held someone's esophagus down to the pavement in a Scrambler accident, making sure that they are dead, and that they can not talk about the Scrambler accident

I know when they put the bar seatbelt down I'm going to throw up for sure. And I even say to the Scrambler operator, I'm like, hey, actually-- and then he was gone. Apparently he doesn't enjoy the second halves of sentences.

And so then I'm scrambling. And I'm scrambling and I'm thinking, I need to come up with a plan of some kind. And my first plan was that I wouldn't look at Lisa and I wouldn't look at any other people. So I'm like, don't look at Lisa. Don't look at any other people. Don't look at Lisa. Don't look at any other people. I need a new plan. And the new plan was that I needed to tell the Scrambler operator that he needed to stop the ride. But the mathematics of the Scrambler are such that the window of opportunity in which one can communicate with the Scrambler operator is a very limited window. So I'm like, I got to the guy to stop the ride. I got to tell the guy to stop the ride. I got to tell the guy to stop the ride. Please stop the ride. And then I'm back. 20 yards away, 30 yards away, 40 hours away, 20 yards away. I got to say it louder. Please stop the ride!. And I'm back. 20 yards away, 30 yards away, 40 yards away. I'm like, I'm not sure he's paying attention. I think he might be smoking pot right now. And the third time I said, please stop the-- and then I started throwing up. And it was not unlike an oscillating lawn sprinkler. You know, just [SPRINKLER NOISES]. Just popcorn and peanuts and insulation. Really insulating the pavement with my homemade carnival salsa.

And I did not look at Lisa, but I'm pretty sure she was staring at me. And we did not make out. Making out was no longer on the agenda that evening. And so I did not lose my mouth virginity.

But the next year, it actually got worse. Because I went to an all boys catholic school and I actually couldn't admit to my peers that I hadn't had my first kiss because I knew they would make fun of me mercilessly. And so when they would ask, I would just be like, yeah. And I feared that at some point they would ask follow up questions. They'd be like, oh yeah, what's it like? And I'd be like, it's like licking an ice cream cone. And they'd be like, no it's not. It's like sucking on a rocket pop. And I'd be like, oh, wrong frozen dessert analogy.

Because these guys that I went to school with, I mean they were just make out machines. I mean I sat behind this one guy in class named Sam Richiarti and he was like a make out ninja. Like every Monday morning I'd be like, what'd you do over the weekend? And he would just be like, made out with chicks. And I would be like, where? And he would be like, the mall, dude. The mall. As though that made sense. And I was just trying to imagine this, like the mall. What does that mean? He goes to the arcade and kind of like throws quarters around to the ladies. And then, invites one over to go to Orange Julius. And then says, hey, want to make out at the phone booth or whatever? Like I don't even know how that happens.

So I thought my only chance to lose my mouth virginity was going to be at the annual St. John's dance. They had what they called cattle call dances where they invite all the girls from all over the state to the St. John's gymnasium for the sole purpose of making out. I mean this was a gymnasium that was chock full of sweat and Binaca and Led Zeppelin and Drakkar Noir and I was flanked at the dance by my friend Sam. And we were introduced by our friend, Tom, to this girl, these two girls. And Sam said one of those phrases that we've all heard, but is very uncomfortable. He said, you get that one. Which I know is uncomfortable to talk about, but I'm OK talking about it because I know I've been on the negative end of that conversation where some girls says of me like, you get that one. And then the other girl goes, ew. Or even worse, you owe me. Which really hurts. You know, thinking about someone incurring debt based on my appearance. I don't want to hurt someone's credit score.

So he says, you get that one. And then I'm fast-dancing with this girl, Sandra. I'm not great at fast-dancing. She's losing interest in me by the second. And I'm saved by a slow song. It was "Stairway to Heaven." It's an eight-minute make out anthem. And we're slow dancing and you can't mess up slow dancing because it's just kind of a slow motion hug. The only way you could mess it up is if you started fast dancing in the middle of it. And she was like, what are you doing? And I'm like, I don't pick up on social cues.

So we're slow dancing and all I'm focused on is I just don't want to fidget too much. Because I'm kind of a fidgety person. I fear if I fidget too much I could initiate the tilt too early. That's one of the main ingredients of making out, the tilt. And then the area in between the two mouths, which is a very mysterious area. I mean no one has video footage of that area. It's like the giant squid of making out. No one has seen it alive, they've just seen it washed up on shore. Which is more specific to the squid side of the analogy. You know what I mean? And so, with about three minutes left in "Stairway to Heaven" I make the slightest tilt and then Sandra comes in strong. And then it was an all out mouth war. And she had artillery because she had braces. It was like a dog eating spaghetti and the fork.

And while this oral atrocity is taking place, all I can think is, I'm not alone anymore. I'm not in the non-make out club. And it was this real seminal moment for me. But I couldn't share it with anyone because I walked off the dance floor and I had to play it off like this was something I had done before. My friend Sam was like, how'd it go? And I was just like, it was great, just like always.

So a few days later I call Sandra and I'm thinking, maybe we could have a relationship of some kind. And she doesn't call me back. And so I go to school one day and I say to my friend Tom who had introduced us, I go, hey, what's going on with Sandra? And he has this kind of knowing grin on his face. I'm like, what? He's like, nothing. I was like, what? And he's like, nothing. And I was like, what? And he was like, oh, I talked to Sandra and she said that you're the worst kisser she's ever kissed.

I know. It was devastating. Because first of all, because it was probably true. But more importantly, because I couldn't explain to my friends why it was true. I couldn't do like, well that makes sense because I've never kissed anyone before. I had no idea what I'm doing. So instead, I had to just be like, yeah, that sounds about right. I'm a terrible kisser. That's kind of my thing. But I was lucky because my friend Sam was right there with me and he's goes, me too, dude. Me too.

Ira Glass

Mike Birbiglia, performing a story from his new one-man show and his new book that is coming out this fall. The book is Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories.

Coming up, mistakes we've made with space aliens. Already, we don't even know them and we've made mistakes. That's in a minute. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two: Brothers from Another Planet

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, First Contact, stories about people reaching outside what they know, outside their comfort zone, making contact with something they have only heard about. We've arrived at act 2 of our show. Act two: brothers from another planet.

What's amazing about this next story is that this couple befriends these strangers. Mostly the guy, but also the woman. And really, they get to know them and what their lives are really like at this level that is so intimate. It takes them into this world that most of us really don't feel like we have any access to at all. Here's Sara Blaisdell, who tells the story.

Sara Blaisdell

Here's what I know about Yemal from the pictures. When it's cold, which isn't often, he wears grey and red stripe sweaters. He can do a cartwheel. He likes to hold babies, stand next to camels, and sit on saggy couches conversing with handsome young men. He himself, is handsome. His big brown eyes, thick dark hair, a mischeivous-looking moustache, a three-days beard, and a tiny gap between his front teeth. He's the kind of guy who wholeheartedly smiles in photos, rather than trying to look like a bad-ass.

Yemal lives near Sadr City, a poor section in Northeast Baghdad. He's the oldest of three Iraqi brothers and he's aged from 17 to 23 since the war started in 2003. The same year he and my husband, Sam Taylor, started their Sunday phone ritual. When Yemal looks back at what's happened during this time he says, there haven't been any positive things because of the war. But there have been many positive things happening during the war. You know, I got married. I got my children. I met Sam.

On a recent Saturday night, Sam was up late playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live with friends, and then watching sci-fi films and eating chicken wings with me. But he knows he will piss off at least three Iraqis if he's not up by 7:50 Sunday morning. So he sets the alarm. Then clicks it off when it beeps just five hours later. Gets his headset ready, starts the coffee. Then the phone rings, like it has almost every week since 2003. Sam's been talking to the boys as we call them, Yemal, Sadeem and Mahmood for at least four hours every Sunday for almost seven years.

But on this Sunday, March 28, 2010, when Sam answers the phone, Yemal is unusually quite, not really engaged. This is about the time Yemal's wife, Temara , is supposed to be having her baby. So Sam worries something's gone wrong.

I'm not sure how to say this, Yemal says, then he gets quite again.

Are you there, Sam asks?

I'm trying to think of what to say. I'm trying to get the strength to say this.

This whole time Sam's thinking, the new baby has died, Temara has died, or both. He thinks for sure that's what it is and he doesn't know how he's going to respond.

And then Yemal says, you lied.

What do you mean?

You said that if enough people voted, al-Maliki would be gone and Allawi would win.

A few hours later, Sam and I are making a rare Sunday lunch together because the boys hung up earlier than usual. Maybe because of their sour moods.

Did you tell them Allawi would win?, I ask.

Kind of, Sam says. Well, not exactly. Sam had told them that if people didn't like al-Maliki and enough people voted, they might get him out. He could be gone. He hadn't meant for it to be a stump speech about the power of democracy. He hadn't meant it as a property either. And now it's all over the news, Nouri al-Maliki saying something to the effect of as Yemal puts it, I am in power. I will always be in power.

After Yemal accused Sam of being a liar, they talked through it. They always managed to talk through it after one or the other unwittingly offends, or after they've delved too deep into dark topics. They usually warm up again by talking about light stuff or joking about stereotypes of East and West.

Sam will be talking about Jews, for example, and Yemal will say, Jews? But he'll say it like Jews. And Sam will say, that's so cliche. The Middle Easterner's got to hate the Jews. Or Yemal jokes about how sinful Sam is. He'll give him a hard time because he had sex before marriage, or he'll ask, were you drinking last night?

The boys are also really interested in finding videos on YouTube of world leaders crying, world leaders doing something embarrassing. Especially Arab leaders, but others too. They tell Sam, oh, there's this new Ahmadinejad rap you have to hear. It's so funny.

The boys usually lead the conversation and Sam usually follows. They'll talk about political news, family news, works news. Since Yemal was conscripted into the army, cleaning up after suicide bombings is a regular part of his life. When they talked about the violent, Sam used to say stuff like, maybe this'll be over soon, or things are going to get better. But he stopped saying that. Now mostly he'll just listen and won't try to explain it away. A lot of times they're looking for answers to questions like, how would you feel if this was happening to you? Let's say your wife got killed. So Sam will say I don't know how I would feel. Because he doesn't.

Sam first met Yemal in 2003. At the time, Sam was a philosophy undergrad living in Pleasant Grove Utah. He was kind of bored with the politics website he was arguing on, so he started playing around with this chat program and met an Israeli there. Acrosstheuniverse was his user name.

On Sam's campus there are wide screen TVs all over the food court blasting the war news. One day Sam distinctly remembers there was coverage of the explosions, bombs hitting Iraq. It was like they were watching a football game Sam says. It seemed wrong to him. So he asked his Israeli chat buddy, Acrosstheuniverse, what he thought about the war. What did he think was going to come of it. Acrosstheuniverse replied, I just met an Iraqi. Want to meet him? Sure, Sam said. So that's when he got a message from Yemal, a real live Iraqi.

So he started asking him about the war, about what was going on outside his window. Yemal wrote back about the pro-democracy propaganda flyers written in English. They were floating down onto the streets. Within a couple of weeks, they were writing each other about more personal stuff.

Half a year went by and Yemal bought a calling card and asked Sam for his phone number. Then early one morning the phone rang and all of a sudden Sam was speaking to someone whose voice he couldn't quite place, with an accent crisp and formal, like none he'd ever heard.

The calls started coming in a little bit more when Sam met Yemal's younger brothers, Sadeem and Mahmood. Talking was a way to pass the time when it was too dangerous to go out on the streets. Sometimes when Yemal and Sadeem and their parents had to leave the house, Yemal would ask Sam to babysit Mahmood over the phone. Just talk to him and keep him company in case he got scared.

Sadeem's the middle kid. Three years younger than Yemal and three years older than Mahmood. Sam remembers a few days he and Sadeem just talked all day. From early in the morning till the evening when it started getting dark.

In their early phone calls, Sadeem read Sam [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and several Iraqi poets. I was working at a teen clinic for girls at the time and as Sadeem reached 15, he would send the girls poems he'd written about life in Iraq. They'd respond by writing meth poems and heroin poems. And send Sadeem little construction paper cards that said, thank you for your service. Sadeem told me, make sure you show those girls my picture so they know how cute I am. And he was cute. Red soccer jerseys, curly dark hair, big eyes with long lashes.

When things got bad though, after Sadeem and Mahmood were injured for the first time by a suicide bombing in 2005, Sadeem started asking me questions like, where do those girls you work with cut on their arms? And how do you fix PTSD? He'd say he was going to hurt himself, and then he'd hang up on us. Then call back a few minutes later and apologize.

March 8, 2010 when I answer the phone, Yemal says, it was a horrible day yesterday. The media will tell you the elections were a [BLEEP] damn success. But there's no success when people die.

He's on the bus home coming from just west of the green zone, where his brother, Mahmood, lives with their parents. Yesterday, Mahmood had been walking down the street and there was a bomb explosion. He came home with a hand just hanging and said that hurt, Yemal says. And I said, I understand why because it's broken. So he had to go to the hospital. But he's home now. Can you hold on a minute? I'm getting off the bus. Sure, I say.

It's a Monday. I talked to the boys sometimes by phone and e-mail, but didn't ask to talk yesterday because I didn't want to mess Mahmood's Sunday's scheduling. Mahmood is 16 and it's his self-proclaimed duty to make sure everyone gets equal time with Sam. He even sets an alarm that goes off when one person's turn is finished, so the next one can start.

When I ask how Mahmood is doing other than the broken arm, Yemal says, as you know, this year he got a girlfriend and got engaged. And then she got killed in a suicide bombing. It goes up and down with him. He still has lots of nightmare.

Yemal believes that of the three boys, Mahmood's most affected by the war. He doesn't remember the Iran-Iraq War or the Kuwait War, and he was too little to remember the deaths caused by the oil for food program the way Yemal does. So when Mahmood was nine in 2003 and the war started, he'd never really been around bombs. So, Yemal says, he's the most scared.

Mahmood is the one Sam talks with most on days other than the scheduled Sundays. We'll be in the line at the grocery store and Mahmood will text, I'm scared, Yam. I can't sleep. He's got this little Elmo voice. It's matured slightly over the years, but you can almost here that tiny Elmo sound when you read his text messages. Sometimes he'll just write, Yam? Yam? He's been calling Sam that since they first started talking and the name just stuck.

Yemal's off the bus now, walking in Sadr City. He tells me to wait a second, a bomb just went off. I just want to see where it is, he says, hold on. I hear a man's voice very close speaking in Arabic and an ambulance gets loud, then moves away. They're not driving to the part of the city where Mahmood lives, so I don't have to be so nervous, Yemal says. It's a half hour bus ride from Mahmood's house to Yemal's. He says where Mahmood lives, there are about eight or nine explosions every day. And where he lives it's more like two or three.

And how are you, Yemal asks. It's the question I find the most insinuating, the most difficult to answer.

Pretty good, just going to school and working at the dog daycare. Yemal tells me how weird it is I work with dogs. He seems annoyed every time Sam or I coo on the phone about something cute our dogs are doing.

Here dogs are hated, Yemal says. If you come near them, they growl.

When you're putting together a body after an explosion, the dogs come and try to eat it all. You have to kill them. I kill a lot of dogs. I remember when Mahmood was in a coma once and bleeding, and the dog came nibbling on him and I killed him.

Basically, people have a goat or a camel or a donkey or a horse. Once we had a hamster named Benjamin.

Sam probably talks to the boys more than he talks to anybody. He always wanted brothers when he was a kid. Someone to play hide and seek with, to play guns with, or go somewhere dangerous. Sam says his relationship with the boys is like having brothers, but in a different way than he imagined back then. More intimate.

When Sadeem and Mahmood hit teenhood, they turn to Sam for advice. They translated the rush of hormones they were feeling into the English word, "drifts." So they'd ask Sam stuff like, how did you handle your drifts? And when will the drifts stop? He said something like, the drifts won't stop, you just learn how to deal with them and it gets easier after a while.

Their friendship happened so gradually. Sam knows it's unusual, but it really only hits him how strange it is that he's so close with three people in the middle of a war when the boys tell them something especially disturbing about what they've seen, or when Sam tries to explain the phone calls to anyone here. He doesn't do that very often. Because when he's tried it's always seemed to backfire.

When he told his parents he knew Iraqis, they seemed skeptical. And when it comes up with friends, some are interested, but others think it's weird and treat it like a joke. One night Sam was at the Twilight Lounge with a bunch of friends and Sadeem called. Sam's friend, Ana, asked who he was talking to that was so important. When he said it was one of his Iraqi friends, Ana said she wanted to talk to him. Sam had thought it was all in good fun, so he was like, all right, go ahead and say hi. And she said to Sadeem, say something dirty in Arabic to me. Sadeem was so angry. He said to Sam, why do you spend time with people like that? Why are there people like that?

On January 31, 2009, a year and a half ago, provincial elections held in 14 Iraqi provinces were celebrated in headlines as peaceful and almost violence free. But that morning, 17-year-old Sadeem told his friends and family in Baghdad, this is not a country. It's not a democracy. It's not peace here, nor is it more peaceful. There's no future here.

He and his 16-year-old wife Rasheeda , who is pregnant with twins, pulled their adopted daughter, Yolena , out of preschool, quit their jobs, and signed on with a truck driver who said he would take them out of the country. Sadeem told me he left because he didn't want to raise his family in a city so violent. He and Rasheeda have now lost four of their six children. Although for reasons arguably unrelated to the war. Irina died in the womb. Ahmed , one of the twins, was premature and died 12 days after his birth. Their first adopted child, Abdul, passed away in 2008 due to a breathing problem. And their second adopted child, Yolena, who was deaf, partially blind, couldn't walk, and was expected to live only until the age of three, passed away from pneumonia two weeks ago at the age of six. The two other children are Yuwad who's one, and Saleem , who's almost two.

Saleem's also adopted. He was found on the steps of the child home and the workers called Sadeem and Rasheeda to see if they would take him. At first we said no because we already had Yolena and Yuwad Sadeem says. But then of course, they sent a damn photo of him. So a year ago, Sadeem and Rasheeda were saying goodbye to Baghdad. Sadeem can't say how long they spent in the hot, dark back of that truck with no bathroom, worrying over Yolena who was prone to seizures. But after a couple of days when the driver finally pushed them out, they realized they weren't in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. There are still in Iraq, right near the western border.

After spending a few days in a refugee camp, they walked an hour to a village and decided to stay. They'd hoped to be counted among the 201 million Iraqi refugees who made it to Syria, or Jordan, or some other country. But instead, they're counted among the 2.8 million who have been displaced inside Iraq by the war.

Sadeem found a job almost right away teaching three- to five-year-olds at a mosque. They have to learn how to read the Quran in a specific way, to recite it like singing. He says the students are very, very behaved.

Sadeem says his new village is so calm. There are no soldiers, there's not much traffic. And he says, people aren't constantly worried about bombings. If you're at the grocery market and you stand in line with 15 people, it doesn't really matter because people take it easy, he says. It's not like in Baghdad where if there are two people in front of you, you're like, ah, there's two people in front of me. I'm going to die.

Back in Baghdad in early April, about three weeks after the elections Yemal was so upset about, he sent Sam a series of short text messages. He though he was in danger. There were people coming around his neighborhood. He didn't have many details and asked Sam to see what he could find out from news reports.

Sam found articles online about gunmen dressed at soldiers going door-to-door in neighborhoods near where Yemal's family lived, shooting and slitting the throats of Sunnis. Yemal is Sunni and Yemal's wife was just about to have her baby. She was in the hospital. So Yemal took his four-year-old daughter, Malika , and texted Sam that they were going to stay away from home for a while. Neither Sam nor Sadeem heard from Yemal or Mahmood for a few weeks after that. Finally they got word that little Malika was spotted by a neighbor wandering near some storefronts. She was taken to an uncle's house. Malika said she'd been with her father when there was a bomb and he told her to run.

So Sadeem took the 12 hour bus ride up to Baghdad to help in the search for his brothers. He wrote on his blog, where are you, Yemal? Where are you, Mahmood?

After he had returned to his village with no success, we heard from Sadeem's friends in Baghdad. Yemal's wife, Temara , had had her baby, a little girl, and was doing fine. Yemal and Mahmood had been found in a hospital. Mahmood injured but OK, recovering from an infection. Yemal in a deep coma with very little brain activity.

Months before all that, Yemal had chosen Sam to be an [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to his baby. Which is sort of like a godfather. Since Yemal is still in a coma and the baby's getting on a month and a half old, the responsibility falls on Sam, Sadeem and Mahmood to help Temara name her. So in early June Sadeem calls. He runs name ideas by Sam. What do you think about the name Leila. Leila? There's a very similar name in English and an Eric Clapton song.

Oh, Sadeem says.

Is that Temara is thinking about?

No, it's what I'm thinking about.

I think that'd be a beautiful name.

I don't know. That or otherwise I was thinking about the name Emina. But then I remembered you have a damn cat named that, says Sadeem.

Sorry, did we ruin that name forever?


Say that name again.


What does hafiz mean again? Love?

Yeah, it's the female version of hafiz.

I'd be a pretty big fan of that name, Sam says.

Well, I don't know. I'll give Temara a few names and then she'll see which one she want to name her. But she's such a good little fluffy baby.

How's the mom doing?

She's OK. As good as she can be, I guess.

From the hospital In Baghdad, a friend puts the phone up to Yemal so Sam can speak to him. There's hope that even though Yemal's in a coma, he might hear and understand the voices of his friends. Sam tells Yemal that he loves him. As Sam talks he hears the machines that keeps his friend breathing. Yemal slept through his 23th birthday, May 29, His friends have been writing on his Facebook wall and I've been looking at the pictures.

The last thing Yemal posted was a cover the Aerosmith song, "Don't Want to Miss a Thing." A song I always thought was cheesy, so I never opened the link.

So Yemal can't speak and Sadeem can only call when he visits Baghdad or Basra. Sam misses them, but he's still on the phone every week to Iraq for four hours. He's got a new schedule. Some Saturdays he talks to Mahmood. And on Sundays, he talks to their friends in Najaf. They tell him whatever news they have about the boys. Now they've become Sam's friends too.

Ira Glass

Sara Blaisdell lives in Virginia.

Act Three: Intergalactic Cold Call

Ira Glass

Act 3: Intergalactic cold call.

First contact to science fiction fans means just one thing, first contact with extraterrestrials. And SETI, that's the Search for Extraterrestrials Intelligence, where scientists use radio telescopes to look for signs of intelligent life elsewhere, actually has a task force, the Post-Detection Task Force, devoted to the question, what happens if they find intelligent life elsewhere. And one of the responsibilities of this task force is actually to consider this question, what kind of message should we send as our first communication with an alien civilization.

Paul Davies

So supposing we find that there is a radio source, or at least evidence for alien technology at some particular location in the galaxy--

Ira Glass

This is Professor Paul Davies, author of a book about all this, The Eerie Silence and chair of this task force.

Paul Davies

The the task group feels that in the first instance, we should not disclose the coordinates in the sky of this source, simply because we don't want any random crackpot setting themselves up as a self-appointed spokesperson of mankind and commandeering a radio telescope and sending their own homespun wisdom. Because if we're going to respond to some sort of contact like this, we have to think very carefully about what we want to say.

Ira Glass

In your book you write, "A message concocted by a committee would be a recipe for the lowest common denominator, and is likely to consist of banalities. Statements solely by a politician or religious leaders to horrible to contemplate." What do you think should be in the first message?

Paul Davies

I err on the side of comprehension. That is to say that I think we should pick a message which is certain to be understood by them and that we might pick one of the fundamental numbers that come out of atomic and quantum physics and send that as an indication of our level of understanding of basic science and mathematics.

Now if we attempted for example, to send details of the US Constitution or something of that sort, of course it would be completely incomprehensible. Some people think that music is the finest achievement of the human intellect, but music appreciation is so tied to the human cognitive system, it may just be completely meaningless to an alien brain an alien mind.

Ira Glass

Send that stuff later, Davies says, once they're getting to know us. First message, be simple and comprehensible. Numbers. Sent in binary code, zero's and one's. But apparently not everybody on our planet has gotten this memo.


Hi, my name is Venetia and I'm part of a groundbreaking new project that lets Bebo users make their mark on history.

When you look into the night sky, there's a star 20 and 1/2 light years away.

Ira Glass

This was on a social networking site called Bebo a little while back. There's a planet 20 light years away that this website says, theoretically could hold life. Maybe.


We want you to create a message that we'll beam out of solar system and across the galaxy. In just over 20 years when the message arrives at our target planet, the photos, drawings, and words submitted by Bebo users could be the first things that another world ever learns about mankind.

Ira Glass

Well, we got a hold of some of these messages from Bebo users that were actually sent by a radio telescope to this distant alien civilization that they hope anyway, is there. Presumably, super advanced if the can hear and understand us. One of the messages here, "I don't believe in aliens. But I suppose if you're getting this now, I was epically wrong. P.S. We invented the George Foreman grill, therefore we're better than you."

Another, "George Sampson is amazing-- and then there's a smiley emoticon. He's so talented, lovely, and gorgeous. He's such an inspiration-- I'm reading it this way because there are exclamation marks by the way. He's such an inspiration to other dancers, plus deserves everything he's gotten. Congrats on everything, George, and good luck for the future. I love you, XX."

Another, "I love someone very much, but they got someone else."

Another, "Anybody for a cup Of tea?"

Another, "You're lucky to live over 20 light years from Earth. By the time you read this, I will be getting my state pension and my country's capital, London, will be under water due to global warming melting our ice caps. The white bits that you see at the top and bottom of our planet. P.S. Don't invent/use fossil fuel based engines."

And this one, my favorite. "Hi aliens. If you get this and you get coordinates and stuff from Earth, please don't come and kill us because that's not nice. Thanks. Unless you kill us, then no thanks. From Morgan Nagle."

People also sent pictures of themselves, of their guitars and drum sets. There's several stick figure drawings. There are lots of logos from sports teams. And a surprising number of photos of Heath Ledger as the joker.

Paul Davies

In the cause of these exercises where messages have been invited using social networking sites--

Ira Glass

Again, Professor Paul Davies.

Paul Davies

--it's alarming and a bit depressing to see the sort of messages people send it. Mostly they're at the level of sentiments about their boyfriends or girlfriends or something of that sort.

I have to say that I, myself, don't have any great misgivings because I think the chances of these transmitted signals ever being picked up by an alien civilization are very small.

Ira Glass

Also, he says, the aliens won't understand a word of it in all likelihood. He also takes a dim view of the space probes that NASA has sent out with messages for other civilizations. The Voyager spacecraft had an actual phonograph record with sounds from Earth. We've sent the Beatles song "Across the Universe " into space. The Pioneer spacecraft had a plague on it with drawings of a naked man and woman. The man's hand raised in greeting.

Davies was written about this in his book.

Paul Davies

The picture is dominated by the human shapes. Yet our physical form is probably the least significant thing we can say. It's almost completely irrelevant, both scientifically and culturally. To put it bluntly, who gives a damn what we look like? The raised hand is the height of absurdity. Such a culturally specific mannerism would be utterly incomprehensible to another species. Especially one that might not have limbs. This half-hearted attempt to put our stamp on the cosmic community is distinctive in its narrow-mindedness and preoccupation with 20th century science and human affairs.

Ira Glass

For now though, since it seems that anybody can borrow one of these radio telescopes to beam out a message, what we're sending into space includes stuff like this from that Bebo project. "We have pointless sports such as golf. You hit a ball with a stick and aim for a hole. Also a game for the rich. Now we have fun games like rugby. We hurt each other for a ball to gain points. Football is a boring game to some and not to other, but if you think of it, all sports are pointless. Just something to keep us happy." [MUSIC- "FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME" BY FOREIGNER]


Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and me, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer Julie Snyder. Seth Lind who is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Jonathan Mitchell created our audio simulation of the sound that Scott heard with his cochlear implant in the open of today's show.


Our website,, where right now you can see more of the messages that Bebo users beamed up into space if you aren't already in space and seeing them already from space. Though, how likely is that really? This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's ready to let the truth be known.

Mike Birbiglia

I'm a terrible kisser. That's kind of my thing.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, be back next week with more stories of this American life.

Mike Birbiglia

Me too, dude. Me too.