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697: Alone Together

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Hey there, everybody. Ira here. So if you heard our show last week, you know that I had just learned hours before we broadcast that episode that I needed to go into quarantine because a guy who I had shaken hands with five days before that developed symptoms and then tested positive for coronavirus. It is now 12 days since I shook hands with that guy, and I've not developed symptoms. CDC guidelines say that it can happen for up to 14 days, so I am nearly in the clear. A reminder to everybody that people who don't have symptoms can still be carrying the virus and give it to others. Anyway, the world has changed so much, right?

One of the striking things about this coronavirus is how differently it affects different people. So some people who get it have no symptoms, or they get mild symptoms, or they experience something like a bad flu. That's particularly young and healthy people, though young, healthy adults are not immune. The CDC put out a report this week-- maybe you saw this-- saying 20% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are between 20 and 44 years old.

But it's older people, as we all know, who are living in a completely different world these days. If they leave their homes, they're walking around in a world that's suddenly filled with this invisible thing that can kill them with no idea of who around them might have it or what doorknob it might be on. One of our producers, David Kestenbaum, talked to this woman, Tova Rothman, who's 71. Her husband's 74 and has a compromised immune system, so he is in special danger if he comes into contact with the virus. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

I talked to Tova last weekend, which feels like so long ago. I don't think I would do this now, but we met in person to talk. She lives in my town, in this apartment across from the pizza place, the little movie theater, the Kings supermarket. Her daughter told me she was eager to talk to someone.

For her safety, I checked my temperature before I left the house, washed my hands twice, and wiped down my microphone, though even that is no guarantee. Again, I wouldn't do this now. She came down from her apartment carrying her cell phone and a canister of Clorox wipes.

Tova Rothman

Oh, you brought your own wipes too.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

We did the interview on a park bench. If she's a little off-mic sometimes, it's because I'm sitting as far away from her as possible, holding my arms straight out with the microphone. Every move she makes right now requires some impossible calculation. She has to avoid anything that might get her or her husband sick.

David Kestenbaum

How are you feeling in general?

Tova Rothman

Overwhelmed, but I feel like that I can master this. I went to Kings across the street. I just try to stay away from people. They have them restocking and restocking. And they actually have better fruit and fresher fruit now. [LAUGHS]

But you're not supposed to get between six feet of people. And millennials are all marching around buying things, and you're, whoa, don't come near me. I must look like I'm crazy, but that's the way it goes.

This town is a very young town, and so there's a lot of young people and a lot of kids skateboarding. And they're in your face. And you're like, stay away. But they don't understand that.

David Kestenbaum

Have you said anything to anybody?

Tova Rothman

No. Wearing my plastic gloves and carrying my canister of Clorox, I think they understand where I'm coming from. [LAUGHS] It sounds so funny.

David Kestenbaum

Her husband, because of his immune system, is stuck in the apartment.

Tova Rothman

My husband is not well. He can't go out, and he's not happy about it.

David Kestenbaum

There's TV, of course, but annoyingly, no sports to watch because everything's been canceled. The other night, he had Gunsmoke on, which is really not Tova's thing.

Tova Rothman

So we're not having a great relationship with this. I told him that I was checking on him, and he shouldn't get out of his chair. And he very nastily said, OK, I won't get out.

David Kestenbaum

Does he say, I want to go outside, and you say, we can't?

Tova Rothman

Yeah. He'll say, I want to do something. And I say, you can't. I would take him downstairs, and he could go out and get air in his face. But there's so many surfaces between our apartment and the lobby, and it's only one floor. But there's so much you have to worry about.

It is a surreal thing. You just-- you think, what? Every morning, you wake up and think, I can't believe this. Is it real? So, it's real.

David Kestenbaum

Tova says her grandfather died from the Spanish flu in 1918.

Tova Rothman

He went to the opera. They used to get tickets where they could stand and pay a lot less. And so he went to the opera, and he was in a crowd. And he got-- he was sick one day and died the next.

David Kestenbaum

He was 26. I keep thinking about how differently everyone might view this thing, how different our country's response might have been if the virus were as dangerous for younger people.

Tova Rothman

Maybe we would have reacted faster because, oh, it's only the old people. [LAUGHS] That's how I feel. It wasn't quite as tragic if it's the old people. My friends keep calling and saying, who knew we were the old people, which is true.

David Kestenbaum

Tova stood up to go back to her husband. And as she did, this guy walked really close to her to throw a tissue in the trash can, as if it was two weeks ago or something. Tova was not happy.

Tova Rothman

I was almost ready to throw my canister of wipes at him. He should stay away. Maybe I don't look 71. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

I'm sure that's it.

Tova Rothman

Ah, yeah. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

OK.

Tova Rothman

Oh, very nice meeting you too.

David Kestenbaum

OK.

Tova Rothman

And thank you.

David Kestenbaum

I called Tova four days later to see how she was doing. She's still going out for walks-- no supermarkets anymore.

Ira Glass

That was actually the very last interview that anybody on our staff did with somebody in person, David Kestenbaum's story. We have all been holed up in our own homes, everybody on the staff. We are one of the many businesses that have decided that it's safer for everybody if we're working from home. So everybody's doing interviews over the phone. We're all preparing stories for next week's show about what's happening in the country and in the world.

But in the meantime, until then, thinking about what might be nice to hear on the radio in a moment like this one. I think so much of what is happening now, as we're being told to stay home, and so many of us are either cooped up with our families or reaching out to family members more than usual, and reaching out to the other people we love to see how they're doing, and to worry together about what's going to happen next, we thought, with that in mind, today we would prepare a show of stories that we've made over the years about families and about people trying to find comfort or find answers by turning to their families, including-- we have this one story from 25 years ago of me and my mom back when she was still alive. And I saw her quoted in a national magazine as a sexpert. I had some questions for her, and I called her. We get to that in Act Three.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Hey Dad. Dad!

Ira Glass

Act One, "Hey, Dad. Dad!" So school was cut off in so many places, and kids are home. And we have this story of a parent trying to go about his day and his daughter coming to him over and over with some things on her mind. Stephanie Foo tells what happened.

Stephanie Foo

My friend Matt's older daughter went through one of those hardcore phases, where she got really into asking her dad a lot of questions. She was nine.

Matt

There's the why phase, and then the why phase can turn into the why not and explain, and that endless string of questions, like, why can't I have my own room? How do I get to school? Why can't we have a yard? Can I have a cookie? They're unrelenting.

Stephanie Foo

So one night, Matt was working from home, and Rosie was bugging him with her questions.

Matt

And it was just sort of one after the other after the other. And I was like, all right, look, you got to just give me a minute. I'm working right now. Just go off and write them all down. Make me a list of the questions that you want me to answer, and I'll answer them for you.

I thought it was going to be like three or four questions and then a picture of a rabbit or something. And I get this list, and I look at it. And these are the essential, unanswerable questions of life.

Stephanie Foo

Read a few of these questions for me. Start at the very top.

Matt

OK. So, what is life? Why?

Stephanie Foo

That's the first question?

Matt

That's the first question. It's the first thing she wants to know.

[LAUGHTER]

Where do we go when we die-- heaven? Explain. Another planet? Is heaven another planet? Why is there heaven or hell? Time-- why? Explain.

Stephanie Foo

[LAUGHS]

Matt

Do we make worlds? Do we become like God-- why? Why do you do what you do? How do you know what's true? Who do you miss-- why? Explain.

Do you miss anyone more than them? And does that change, and how? And if that changes, was it worth missing them in the first place? And my favorite is-- pretty much just my jaw dropped-- why any of this? I mean, my first reaction to them is-- I mean, I'm proud of her. And then I realize I actually have to answer these questions.

Stephanie Foo

There are about three pages, single-spaced, of handwritten questions, about 50 questions total. But a promise was a promise, so Matt got to work. He's a professor at West Point, teaches writing. And so he took a professorial approach to it and started researching answers for her, looking up quotes on each topic, spending weeks, sometimes months, writing each answer.

Stephanie Foo

What's the shortest and what's the longest you've ever spent, and what's the hardest one?

Matt

So I think the longest one is one that I haven't finished answering for her yet, which is, what is love?

Stephanie Foo

What's been the easiest one to answer so far?

Matt

Is heaven another planet? No.

Stephanie Foo

I got him to read me one of the answers he worked hardest on. The answer to time-- why? Explain.

Stephanie Foo

Could you read it for me?

Matt

Sure. So tell me what and tell me why, and the burden is on me to justify this to you. Perhaps that's what time means in the end, is justification or a lack of being justified. And I don't really know what justification means. There was an old movie I saw when I was a kid in your grandmother's house--

Stephanie Foo

He quotes Camus, then brings in the Millennium Falcon, then St. Augustine, then Kierkegaard. Rosie was nine. All his answers are like this.

Matt

Kierkegaard gets to this point after either/or'ing everything. He says, why did I not die as a baby?

Stephanie Foo

I'm a grown-up, and I find it impossible to follow your answers. Honestly, I have not any idea what you're saying.

Matt

OK. [LAUGHS] Yeah. I mean, I really don't understand half of what I just said either, to be honest.

Stephanie Foo

What his answers do have going for them is sincerity. The time one ends like this.

Matt

In one of my favorite stories by a guy named William Faulkner, there's a daddy who gives his kid a watch and says, I give you this watch, not that you might remember time, but so that you might forget it for a little while. I can only tell you that time is me turning and turning while the world is turning around a star that turns around a center that turns around the whole time. Among all the other things, the little turning animals on all the little turning worlds, there is me, trying to turn to you.

Stephanie Foo

OK. And you just told her this answer like this?

Matt

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

And she--

Matt

I mean, she would kind of pass in and out of being interested in it. And at the end of it she's just kind of like, oh, yeah, OK. And I'm like, all right, well.

I mean, do you see what I'm saying about time? It's a measurement of change. It's an arbitrary human construct, but not, but it feels different, so it's phenomena. She's like, yeah, yeah, OK.

Rosie

I was like, oh, well, this isn't really exactly what I wanted.

Stephanie Foo

That's not what you wanted because you were like, oh, this is kind of boring?

Rosie

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie has a pixie cut and a cheeky grin. She gave her dad the 50 questions three years ago. She's 12 now. He's been working on getting her answers, but he's only gone through 2/3 of them because it takes him so long to cobble together a response. What I found out talking to Rosie is she didn't even really care about the answers to these questions.

Rosie

Questions that I thought that would take him a long time to answer, because at the time I really just wanted to talk to him.

Stephanie Foo

It all started when she first moved to New York City. Before then, she'd been living with her mom and grandparents most of the week. But then her grandpa, who she was really close to, died, and she had to move in with her dad during the week instead. At the same time, she started at a new school where the kids either ignored or bullied her, and she felt lost. One day, she came home from school and decided she needed to do something about it.

Rosie

I was lonely, and I felt a little sad that nobody had really stepped out to say, oh, hey, it's going to be OK. I'll be your friend. So that's when I really, really needed somebody to talk to.

Stephanie Foo

So you didn't have anybody to talk to at school?

Rosie

No.

Stephanie Foo

And then at home?

Rosie

No. That's really why I felt like, oh, this is my dad. He's a really important person. I love him very much. I really want to become closer with him. I wish there was something that I could do to make us closer.

Stephanie Foo

Did you feel like your dad wasn't paying enough attention to you?

Rosie

Yeah, a little bit. Or not a little bit, yeah.

Stephanie Foo

What was he doing instead?

Rosie

He was writing papers on his computer. And I knew, at the time, how important it was, but part of me still wished that, like, put down all the screens, put down everything else, and just talk. So I wrote all the questions down, and they were big questions because I know my dad. And if it's a little question, he'll elaborate on it, and he'll make it a big deal. So if you times that by a big complex question, that would be a huge talk.

Stephanie Foo

Is it true that you weren't talking to her much at the time?

Matt

No, I think I was talking to her all the time. I would tell her it's time to get up and go to school. I would tell her that it was time to do her homework. I would tell her that she needed a new jacket. Yeah, I mean, I talked to you all the time.

Stephanie Foo

Maybe you're noticing the purely logistical nature of everything he mentioned. It certainly didn't get past Rosie.

Matt

I talked to you all the time.

Rosie

Yeah, but to me, it's not really the same thing. So conversation and talking are completely different things. Talking could be a range from, oh, hey, what's up? And conversation is you're deep in thought, and you're looking, and you're making eye contact, and you're really enjoying the presence of somebody else.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie's a smart kid, yeah, but this is the thing I really admire about her. Matt was a single dad with two kids, going to school and trying to make the rent at the same time. Telling him to pay attention to her didn't cut it, so she figured out something else. I read this short story recently about a successful con man whose motto was, make them want to give you the thing you want to take. Rosie made her dad want to give her attention by making an opportunity to do what he loved, ponder over life's big questions.

Rosie

My dad was kind of hard-shelled, I guess. And so it took a lot. I had to keep asking these questions and keep wondering. For me, it was just-- I had to keep going, and keep trying, and keep being this little bird that goes on your shoulders, like, I'm now your friend.

Stephanie Foo

Do you feel like it sort of taught him how to talk to you better?

Rosie

Yeah, definitely. Over the past three years, we've really worked on having actual conversations than him just answering questions for me because we practice it.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie never knew that her dad spent months and months writing down each answer. Matt only told her when I started working on this story. And she said she felt like, what? Are you kidding me?

Rosie

I had no idea that he was doing all these things, and it was just a big surprise for me. If I could, I would definitely just say forget the questions. I just want to talk.

Stephanie Foo

So you're like, well, you don't even have to go through all that trouble.

Rosie

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Just hang out.

Rosie

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie said this to her dad when she found out, and it really threw him for a loop.

Matt

Yeah, it was a complete waste of time. [LAUGHS]

I mean, what a complete waste of time to come up with these big, extensive projects that-- they were definitely less important to them than just listening to them.

Stephanie Foo

Hm.

Matt

What is time-- why? Explain. Well, I can tell you what I don't want time to be. I don't want time to be something where I am just figuring out that I need to shut up and make some time to listen to this little kid before it's too late.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie really started asking the questions because she wanted to know that she wasn't alone and that everything was going to be OK. Now she enjoys hearing the answers because they remind her that that's true. That's why one of her favorite answers is the ending of time-- why? Explain-- the part about all of the planets turning around themselves and in the middle of it Matt turning towards Rosie.

Rosie

One of the meanings of that is even though everything is happening around you, he just wants to know about me a little more, I guess. And a thing that I really like about that is because he just uses these sentences that make me happy when I read them.

Stephanie Foo

It's kind of funny. When he read this to me, he sort of choked up a little bit.

Rosie

Yeah. He likes to be kind of a one-expression person, but when he reads stuff like this he gets all emotional. In the car ride here, he was like, oh, I love you so much. And he was tearing up and looking out the window, so.

Stephanie Foo

[LAUGHS] You look so happy about that.

Rosie

Yeah, it's pretty great.

[LAUGHTER]

Stephanie Foo

So people have been asking these big, important questions like, why are we here? What is life-- forever? And do you think that the real big reason why we ask it is to have a reason to talk to each other?

Rosie

No. I think that philosophers actually really do wonder about these things, and they don't use it so that they can talk to their dads more. They use it because they really wonder about these things, and they want to know everything about it. But for my personal use, yes. That's exactly it.

Stephanie Foo

Matt does still want to keep answering Rosie's questions for her, but as for the hardest question, what is love, I don't think Rosie needs her dad to explain that to her anymore. She gets it.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo. She's currently writing a book about complex PTSD. These days, Rosie is a freshman in high school, and she goes by Rory now. We checked in with her. She says she's using her time cooped up at home with her family right now to draw and listen to music. She says everybody is getting along.

Act Two: Call Me Maybe

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Call Me Maybe." So many of us are concerned right now about our older relatives, especially our parents and grandparents. And this story, in the most literal way, is about reaching out over the phone. Sean Cole put it together.

[DIAL TONE]

Sean's Mom

Yo, Sean. This is your mom. I wasn't home.

Sean Cole

About four or five years ago, I started saving all my mom's voicemails, thinking, she's not going to be around forever. I'm going to want to hear her voice when she's gone, though somehow I didn't extend that thought to I could hear her voice right now if I picked up the phone. She had a talent for the form. With some of them, it almost feels like I'm talking to her, except she's playing both parts.

Sean's Mom

What time is it? Oh, it's 6:52, huh? Yeah, it's later than I thought. I can't believe it's still light out.

Decided to go to the Royal for supper tonight, so that's what we did. We went early, and we are back early. So I don't know what you're doing. So this is me. C'est moi. I'm here. Right. Yo aqui.

Sean Cole

C'est moi. That's "it's me" in French. Sometimes there's not much more than that.

Sean's Mom

C'est moi. Love you lots. Talk to you soon. Bye.

Sean Cole

This one's even shorter.

Sean's Mom

C'est moi. Bye.

Sean Cole

But of course, all the messages boil down to her saying, in one creative way or another, please call me back. Sometimes she was a lot more direct about it.

Sean's Mom

(SLOWLY) Don't forget to call your mother. Goodbye.

Sean Cole

Actually, here's the one that I always tell people about when I'm talking about her messages. It's like she sort of circles and then goes in for the kill.

Sean's Mom

I heard you on the radio on Sunday, and I knew it was you because I can recognize your voice, even though it's been a long time since I've heard it on the phone. So anyway, I love you lots and lots. Call me when you think of it, if you ever do. Love you. Bye.

Sean Cole

My mom-- her name was Pat-- she died on September 28, 2015 at 4:22 in the morning. It was relatively sudden and totally unexpected. And as much as I thought I was preparing myself for that moment, I wasn't prepared. It's true I didn't call enough, but she was still the first person I thought to call when something huge happened, good or bad.

I loved talking to her. She was funny, as you can tell, and smart. She wrote technical manuals in the early days of personal computing. Later in life, she lugged a lot of pro-grade camera equipment around the world, taking pictures. And yet, she had a hard time figuring out her smartphone. The last recording I have from her saved on my phone was a pocket dial.

[SCUFFLING]

This goes on for three minutes.

[SCUFFLING CONTINUES]

Sean Cole

Did you go for your walk this morning?

Ed Hacker

No, I didn't make it this morning. I figured that I was pretty busy.

Sean Cole

After Mom died, I started calling home a lot more to talk to my stepdad, Ed Hacker. He and I never really had a phone relationship when my mother was alive. It was more the classic thing of, you want to say hi to Ed? And then we'd verbally clap each other on the back and then back to Mom. These days, it's not weird for us to spend almost two hours on the phone together.

Ed Hacker

Then I had to give tweets out, so--

Sean Cole

You are the most active octogenarian on Twitter that I know about.

Ed Hacker

Well, I try to send out about six or seven tweets.

Sean Cole

What did you send this morning?

Ed Hacker

Oh, I sent about three or four from--

Sean Cole

I think of how annoyed my mom would be if she knew this, but I'm now performing the exact telephone behavior she wanted from me when she was around, except now with Ed. I call about once a week on average, and it's always me initiating the calls now. At first, of course, it was mainly to make sure he was holding up OK and to make sure I was holding up OK.

But even now, when I miss a week, it eats at me. I'm thinking, got to call Ed, got to call Ed. It's like an injustice that he's getting this treatment and not her, and I keep trying to square it somehow. But when I put this to Ed, he basically said it's really not that big a mystery.

Ed Hacker

Kind of obvious that if one parent dies, you realize that the other one may not be that far off, that he will go too, or she. So the scarcity, just like in economics, makes the value go up.

Sean Cole

I never thought of this in economic terms before.

Ed Hacker

Well, it's true of many things. If the population is very low--

Sean Cole

Ed's 87. He taught philosophy and logic at a university in Boston for a lot of years, which is fitting because Ed is very logical and philosophical. He's always quoting one or another great thinker. For fun, he does math. He and my mom got together when I was six. He moved in when I was 11.

And I think he's right that I call because I'm more aware than ever that one day he won't be on the other end of the phone, but it's more than that too. Even though we have all of these other people in our family whom we love, it got to feeling like Ed's the other one Mom's death happened to, like he and I were the ones who mutually needed to talk about Mom and to hear about her.

Ed Hacker

I feel that, yes, I can talk to you about Pat because you're willing to talk to her about it.

Sean Cole

To you about it, yeah.

Ed Hacker

And it makes a big difference to me.

Sean Cole

It does?

Ed Hacker

Of course.

Sean Cole

I'm so glad to hear that.

Ed Hacker

Because you lost the same person, even if it's somewhat similar if somebody else has lost someone else, like these groups in which everyone has lost a spouse. And their memories are different. You never met that other person that died, and you really don't care. I mean--

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS]

Ed Hacker

You care about your loss. I mean, you know.

Sean Cole

Yeah.

Ed Hacker

Let's be honest.

Sean Cole

Are you on the deck now?

Ed Hacker

I am.

Sean Cole

Having a smoke?

Ed Hacker

I am.

Sean Cole

For a long time, my mom was a third invisible person in all of these conversations, but we've both noticed we're talking about mom less and less. People told me this would happen, but I didn't really believe them, or I didn't want to. Time slouches on. You wake up to different thoughts in the morning. And when you call home, the first thing you say isn't, how are you holding up?

Sean Cole

It used to be that you would kind of mark how long it had been. You'd say, I can't believe it's been three-- it'll be three months on Monday, or I can't believe it'll be nine months on Thursday or whatever.

Ed Hacker

Well, I still keep track of the time.

Sean Cole

You do?

Ed Hacker

Yeah. And I also have an app on my computer, all three of them, which is set to tell me how many days since Pat died.

Sean Cole

You do?

Ed Hacker

I do.

Sean Cole

I didn't know that.

Ed Hacker

So this way-- I'm going there right now to see what my apps are. Well, it's been 22 months and three days since she's died. Or if you want, one year, 10 months, and three days. Or if you want, 96 weeks.

Sean Cole

And what do you feel like, looking at that?

Ed Hacker

Don't have any particular feeling. It's just that it's amazing that it's almost two years.

Sean Cole

Hm.

Ed Hacker

It's like saying, I remember.

Sean Cole

Yeah, I feel like I need something like that, some sort of-- I just feel like I don't think about her enough.

Ed Hacker

Well, that you'll have to explain. Why should you think more?

Sean Cole

I don't-- it's just like--

Ed Hacker

Is it guilt or something?

Sean Cole

It's not guilt, no. It's--

Ed Hacker

You feel like you'll honor her more by thinking about her?

Sean Cole

It's like, yeah, I want to honor her more by thinking about her, and it also feels like there's something going on in me all the time that I'm not acknowledging that leaks out in these other ways. And I just miss her, and so it's like I need to put that missing somewhere.

Ed Hacker

Well, you have a photograph of Pat?

Sean Cole

Yeah. I have one up on the wall in my office.

Ed Hacker

OK. Take another one. And every day, move it from one spot to another in your apartment.

Sean Cole

That's a really good idea. Did you just think of that?

Ed Hacker

Yes. That makes it sort of a ritual.

Sean Cole

But the truth is I already have the ritual I need. I don't do it every day, but I do it just about every week. I call Ed. We talk. For this specific need I have, it turns out he's the perfect person to call. Maybe you've got somebody like that, a personal Ghostbuster when there's something strange in the neighborhood, when things are looking their worst, that person who will know what you're talking about, even if they can't understand what you're saying. And all you got to do is call.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole. When he checked in with Ed this week, Ed was the same as always and doing well. He turns 90 in April.

Act Three: Mom

Ira Glass

Act Three, "Mom." OK, so this is a story we first put on the air in 1996. And yes, our program has been on the air for a long time.

Diane, who's putting together this part of the show with me, producer Diane Wu, she listened to this recording, and she told me that I sound exactly the same in it as I sound today, which-- I don't know. Is that a good thing? Is that not a good thing? Shouldn't a person grow? I think I should sound at least a little different.

Anyway, here is how I introduced this story back then in 1996. Quick warning, before the story starts, that this story acknowledges the existence of sex. OK, here we go.

Our parents can surprise us with what they don't tell us, with what they don't talk about, especially when it comes to sex. Recently I had this experience. An ex-girlfriend was in the gym, looking through a copy of Marie Claire magazine, women's magazine. And there was an article in it on women's fantasies, their sexual fantasies-- what do your man's dirty daydreams reveal about what he wants from you?

In the article, six sexperts-- that was the word they used, "sexperts"-- reveal the six most common male sex fantasy scenarios. So my ex-girlfriend is reading. And there, in the third paragraph, one of the sexperts turns out to be my mother.

[DIAL TONE]

Shirley Glass

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, Mom?

Shirley Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass

It's Ira.

Shirley Glass

Yeah?

Ira Glass

So I'd like to do a little interview.

Shirley Glass

OK.

Ira Glass

OK. So Mom, can I read to you a quote from an article?

Shirley Glass

Of course.

Ira Glass

OK. Here it is. "Your man wants a woman who excites him through her own excitement. You could stimulate yourself while he watches or let him participate by moving his hand to where you want it."

Shirley Glass

Yeah?

Ira Glass

That's you being quoted in Marie Claire.

Shirley Glass

[LAUGHS] You're kidding. What is [INAUDIBLE]?

Ira Glass

All I know is that Anaheed was at the gym, and she opens up Marie Claire to an article called "Men's Sexual Fantasies." And it says at the top, "Here, sexperts reveal the six most common scenarios, unlock the secret longings and psyches of the modern men who fantasize." And you basically are one of the sexperts.

Shirley Glass

Yeah. Yeah, I am.

Ira Glass

I didn't really know you were a sexpert.

Shirley Glass

What did you think I was?

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] Just another Jewish mom and psychologist.

Shirley Glass

Uh-huh.

Ira Glass

So it wasn't like you were a sexpert and you were keeping it from your family?

Shirley Glass

You're talking about my family meaning my children, not my husband?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Shirley Glass

Because he knows that I'm a sexpert.

[LAUGHTER]

And you can call him to verify that.

Ira Glass

I think I'm just going to let that go.

Shirley Glass

[LAUGHS] But my children always seem embarrassed if I discuss anything sexual. So therefore, I tend not to around them.

Ira Glass

When would you try to discuss something sexual with us?

Shirley Glass

I might make a joke or say something that had a sexual connotation, and I'd get this disapproval.

Ira Glass

I don't think that that's true.

Shirley Glass

No?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Actually, I mean, it doesn't affect me in any way to think that you and Dad would be sexual with each other. In fact, I even remember, as a teenager, understanding that and being kind of reassured by it.

Shirley Glass

Mhm.

Ira Glass

Does that make any sense?

Shirley Glass

It makes a little bit of sense, but it really doesn't cover all the situations, if I'm just telling a joke or talking about somebody else. And I think it has to do with boundaries. And I think it has to do with that children, even adult children, do not like to regard their parents' sexuality.

Ira Glass

Hm. You know something? You're actually convincing me.

[LAUGHTER]

Well, let's do a little scientific test. Can you think of a sexual joke? You just tell one right now, and I'll tell you my reaction.

Shirley Glass

I can't think of one.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

You know what I'm feeling right now? I'm feeling a profound--

Shirley Glass

Oh, actually, I heard a wonderful--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, no.

Shirley Glass

I heard a wonderful joke, but I don't even know if it's a joke or a story. This is something that might be true, that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and he said, one giant step for man and one-- what is it-- one giant step for mankind or whatever--

Ira Glass

One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.

Shirley Glass

Right, right. That's it, one small step for man, one giant step for mankind. And then he also said, good luck, Mr. Gorsky. And for years, people have been asking him what that meant. And he would never tell them.

And then this year, someone brought it up again. What did you mean when you said, good luck, Mr. Gorsky? And he said, well, I can tell now because Mr. Gorsky died this year.

When I was a little boy, Mr. Gorsky was our next door neighbor. And I was playing outside one day, and their bedroom window was open. And I heard Mrs. Gorsky say, oral sex? You want me to give you oral sex? You'll get oral sex from me the day that boy next door walks on the moon.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Shirley Glass

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Well, now I'm examining my own feelings. And I have to say, I did get very nervous there in a way that does not correspond, perhaps, with shrugging my shoulders at the notion of you having some sexual life and sexual thoughts.

Shirley Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So let me read you some of your other quotes here.

Shirley Glass

All right.

Ira Glass

In the fantasy of man dominates woman, you're quoted as saying-- says Dr. Glass, quote, "In a caring relationship, it's certainly not abusive or unhealthy if the fantasy is played out in a light, teasing way." You're also quoted extensively in fantasy number five, spontaneous encounter with a beautiful stranger. The key quote is this one, as far as I'm concerned-- "Go to a restaurant, and, at first, pretend you don't know each other," suggests Dr. Glass-- which, when I read that, it actually explained some dinners I've had with you and Dad.

Shirley Glass

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

I thought. Well, you didn't talk very much between the two of you.

Shirley Glass

No, no. That was just the opposite.

Ira Glass

So have you actually-- have you-- have you done this? Have you gone to a restaurant with Dad and pretended that you didn't know each other?

Shirley Glass

No.

Ira Glass

No.

Shirley Glass

No.

Ira Glass

No. But if you did, you're saying that--

Shirley Glass

We've gone to restaurants with you and pretended we didn't know you.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

What do you mean by that?

Shirley Glass

Well, when you were younger, and--

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Shirley Glass

--and let's say that your manner of dressing didn't exactly conform to the style--

Ira Glass

All right, all right. I think everybody-- yeah.

Shirley Glass

--of the other people in the restaurant.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Shirley Glass

Back when Daddy-- Daddy would look at you, and he would start popping Gelusil when we'd go out to eat. And I'd say, now Barry, people are going to look at him, they're going to look at us, and they're going to know that we did not pick out his clothes.

Ira Glass

So now that I know that you're this big sexpert, do you have any sex advice for me?

Shirley Glass

Find a nice girl, and get married. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

That's not sex advice.

[LAUGHTER]

Shirley Glass

We always end up this way, don't we?

Ira Glass

With that particular advice. Yeah, that's-- I know. [LAUGHS] I know. I could ask you any question, and that would be the advice.

Shirley Glass

That's right.

Ira Glass

My mom, Dr. Shirley Glass, back in 1996. In that recording, she is a year younger than I am today. Coming up, when a dad you know so well does something very, very uncharacteristic, what does it mean? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Four: It Takes a Villa

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, speaking to you today not from a studio, but from home because our staff is working from home. And also, I am on quarantine. I'm actually talking to you from inside a closet. It's an old recording trick, with the idea that the clothes absorb sound. I will just say, it's very cramped.

Today on our program, with kids out of school all over the country and businesses closed, and people hunkered down at home with family, and also lots of people far from family and the ones they love, reaching out and worried for them, we have put together a show of family stories that we've made over the years. Both the stories in this next part of our show are people turning to their dads over the telephone with a question. This first one, Act Four, "It Takes a Villa," comes from Neil Drumming.

Neil Drumming

In the summer of 1982, my dad did something unexpected, something that seemed unbelievably indulgent. He took me, my mom, my brother, and the youngest of my three sisters on the most epic road trip any of us could have possibly imagined at the time. We piled into my dad's Buick Skylark and drove from Queens, New York to the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a robot danced for us, and then down into Orlando, Florida.

This was a big deal. Before this, going away meant visiting relatives in South Carolina and sitting uncomfortably among aunts and second cousins whose names I would forget before we'd even pulled out of their dusty driveways. This trip was not country heat and sipping sugar water on some rickety porch while listening to the inscrutable conversation of grown folk. It was what going 1,000 miles from home should feel like.

We cruised down a brightly-lit street called International Drive. We stayed at a Holiday Inn taller and more grand than any I'd ever seen. Sunlight streamed in through a hole in the ceiling, a hole that was supposed to be there.

Our parents took us to a building that looked like a pile of poached eggs, but was actually Xanadu, House of the Future. And everywhere, along every roadside, billboards promised that the most magical scene still awaited us, this place, Disney World. By all accounts, it was paradise for kids. But between the gas, and the hotels, and the eating out, my dad quickly discovered how expensive taking even 60% of his brood on a Disney vacation could be. He was resigned to do it, but he wasn't above working the angles.

He found out that you could get cheap tickets to the Magic Kingdom if you just signed up to sit through an hour or so spiel from someone pitching timeshares. He was in. The hard sell went down at the Disney Village, a branded mini mall near the famous theme park. My mom, dad, and a handful of other determined parents stowed their kids in a room full of toys that had been conveniently provided by the salespeople. The parents set about the business of listening, or not, waiting patiently for the moment when the closers would stop shilling and start handing out the Disney discounts.

But while we kids were in another room throwing LEGOs at one another, something surprising happened. My dad bit. He went into a closed room to get three-day passes just so that I could eventually lose my glasses on Space Mountain, and he came out with a deed, the deed to something he and my mom were now calling our villa.

My father was a bold man, but in retrospect this is the most impetuous action that I have ever seen him take. It cost him about $5,000, which he paid in installments. In 1982, for a guy with five kids, who never made more than $33,000 a year at his day job, it was a considerable investment.

For those unfamiliar with timeshares, it may be hard to wrap your head around buying a vacation home that you never really own. You pay upfront for it. There's an annual maintenance fee, but you only get to stay in it once a year or so, usually for a week at a time. It almost sounds like some sort of scam, and sometimes it is. But it didn't turn out that way for us. Instead, it became a fixture in my family.

My father had chosen, as our week, the first week in July. And so every year, during one of the hottest months of the year, we would head down I-95 as always. But now when we pulled into South Carolina to see relatives, that was only a pit stop on the way to our true destination. We had transformed from people who went away to a family who went on vacation.

Our villa was number 317, a two-bedroom apartment with an enclosed back porch that looked out onto a small man-made lake complete with fish, ducks, and another summer word that I learned, "gazebo." My brother chased cicadas and lizards. For my sister, the only swimmer among my siblings, there was a pool. There were tennis courts and bikes to rent. The general store even offered a collection of the latest movies on laser disk.

That first trip, I was eight. As I got older, I moved from the gazebo to the game room and then the gym, trying to meet other kids my age. My mom busied herself in the kitchen, making lunches, or sat by the lake and watched the ducks. My dad shepherded us through It's a Small World and Epcot Center.

Our summers went on like this, pretty much exactly like this, probably until I finished high school. I honestly loved it. I looked forward to this trip every year. And even though it was only a week, it was almost always the highlight of my entire summer.

But when I think about it now, it occurs to me my dad pretty much orchestrated this thing that became so important to our lives, and I have no idea whether or not he ever enjoyed it himself. In fact, it didn't seem like he did. I can't recall actually seeing him happy.

Neither does my brother. He says Dad was pretty much the same at the timeshare as he was at home. Sometimes he'd go for walks alone, but often he just sat on the couch and watched TV. I asked my sister. She said he must have been happy, but she doesn't remember witnessing it either. It seems like such a simple question, but I just wanted to know, did he enjoy himself?

At the risk of embodying the most tired trope in all of modern masculinity, I will say my father and I never really got along. He was strict, his house had a lot of rules, and he believed in corporal punishment. And the sting of that conflict stayed with me as an adult. But since my mom passed away last year, I've been trying to connect with him more. I gave him a call.

[DIAL TONE]

Neil's Dad

Hello?

Neil Drumming

Hello?

Neil's Dad

Yes?

Neil Drumming

Hey, it's Neil.

Neil's Dad

Yes.

Neil Drumming

Is it a bad time?

Neil's Dad

It's about who?

Neil Drumming

I said, is it a bad time?

Neil's Dad

No, no. I was just playing solitaire. Yeah. I didn't know whether it was the drugstore or not.

Neil Drumming

Are you waiting for a call from the drugstore?

Neil's Dad

No, they'll call. They'll give me a call no matter when it is.

Neil Drumming

My dad is 83 years old now and living alone in Florida. Talking to him can be awkward and not just because his hearing is going. I asked him point blank if he liked going to the villa. He told me that when he was growing up, he barely ever left South Carolina.

Neil's Dad

I didn't know nothing about nothing else. You saw things in magazines and stuff.

Neil Drumming

Mhm.

Neil's Dad

The first time I knew about a dentist, I was in the Army.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Neil's Dad

But I just thought it was a good idea that our kids see something other than their surroundings and where they were born.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

My dad grew up poor on a farm, one of 12 children. He says he only finished high school because by the time he was old enough, he was the one driving the bus. Sometimes when there were athletic events at other schools, he'd get to drive the teams and learn what the nearby towns were like.

In 1953, he was drafted into the Army, which had only recently been integrated. They sent him to Colorado and Indiana, and it wasn't great. He says the Army was really not into black people back then. So those were his travel experiences when he was young. I was hearing a lot of this for the first time, and as it turns out, that's at least partially my own fault.

Neil's Dad

The reason why we never talk about it, because it just wasn't the kind of thing that you guys seemed to be interested in.

Neil Drumming

Really? So we just didn't seem like we were interested as kids?

Neil's Dad

Yeah, right.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, I probably wasn't so interested back then, back when the two of us were constantly challenging each other. I was always either afraid of him or angry at him, hiding from him, or planting my feet to confront him. It never crossed my mind to try to understand him. But nowadays, my dad feels to me like some kind of living cold case, a million-page brief that is no longer redacted. Maybe it's because I'm now at the age he was when I was born, but I retroactively find his every decision fascinating, even the ones that aren't so surprising on the surface.

Neil Drumming

Why Florida?

Neil's Dad

It was advertising. You get to hear something about Florida and then this thing, Disney World. After we started going, they built Epcot. They built Animal Kingdom.

Neil Drumming

Mhm.

Neil's Dad

And they advertise them a lot.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Neil's Dad

Not many people were going. We were probably the most vacationing people in our area.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Neil's Dad

I don't know of any other family that went on vacation every year. We did.

Neil Drumming

My dad was obviously proud that he'd gotten the timeshare, but pride, strictly speaking, does not constitute joy. It didn't answer the question of whether or not he was actually happy spending those summer weeks with us at the villa. Instead, he kept trying to make me understand why he brought us there in the first place. And his explanation, his reasoning reach back to memories and past experiences that not only had I never heard, but that kind of blew my mind.

Neil's Dad

I tell you, probably where I got the whole idea-- when we were in school, every summer you had to try to think of something that you could write about when you'd go back to school, because you're going to have to write something about what you did this summer. Well, we never had anything to write about when I was going to school. And you didn't think plowing a mule, or picking peaches, or stuff that you had to normally do-- you didn't think that was so exciting to write about.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Neil's Dad

So we made up lies about what we did. Well, every summer you guys went on vacation, you could write about something that you did, or saw, or someplace you went.

Neil Drumming

Yeah. What did you do during the summers?

Neil's Dad

When, this year?

Neil Drumming

No, no, when you were in school.

Neil's Dad

[LAUGHS] Worked.

[LAUGHTER]

That's what I tried to tell you.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

We talked for over an hour. It was one of the longest conversations that I can remember us ever having. Every now and then, I'd try to steer him back to the question I wanted him to answer.

Neil Drumming

So I know I asked you this a bunch of times. I keep asking you the same question. You can tell me to stop asking you if you want, but did you have fun yourself?

Neil's Dad

Yeah. See, I don't regret anything because it looked to me like I was doing what I was supposed to do. And to see you kids happy was to be happy too. And you guys could always come in and do whatever it is, and go back out to the pool or whatever.

Neil Drumming

Mhm.

Neil's Dad

I remember you guys playing out there and hanging around the bushes and stuff.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Neil's Dad

I thought it was great.

Neil Drumming

That's a kind of enjoyment I hadn't considered. I live more selfishly. Also, his answer was hard to take in, to reconcile with the distance I felt between us at the time, back when he would retire to the couch to watch TV or we went off to play on our own. Maybe he was watching me play in the bushes and getting a kick out of it, but I didn't know that. Still, I was happy at the villa, and my dad says he was too. I'm glad I know that.

Neil Drumming

All right. So I have been talking to you for an hour. I should probably let you go. But hey, is it OK if I call back this week and just talk? I want to hear more stuff since I didn't seem interested when I was a kid. I didn't realize that was why you didn't tell us stuff. So now I'll just ask. Is that OK if I could--

Neil's Dad

The only thing I'd do is get up, and sometimes I'm outside just walking around. Sometimes I sit down. Sometimes I go ride the bike. And I do this just to keep busy.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Neil's Dad

You can call me anytime.

Neil Drumming

All right. I'm going to go back to work.

Neil's Dad

OK.

Neil Drumming

Bye, Dad.

Neil's Dad

Bye.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming. He says his dad, who's 87, is emphatically not freaked out over COVID-19.

Act Five: Let’s Talk Radio

Ira Glass

Act Five, "Let's Talk Radio."

Man

We'd like to ask you this question, my friend. Do personal problems and worries have you down? Are you disturbed by business problems, marriage problems, or emotional problems? See Mrs. K, reader and advisor. Mrs. K, formerly of Europe, gives you a reading and answers all your questions for just $1.00. And you'll feel much better.

Ira Glass

OK. So this is my father in 1956, three years before I was born. He's 23 years old in this recording. And it's amazing, to me, anyway, hearing him so young, doing something I know so well, trying to sound like you're just talking, totally relaxed, when, in fact, you're reading.

Ira's Dad

And coming up right now, news about a wonderful appliance from Norman R. Mitchell just for the homemakers, as we said before. We're talking about an electric dryer. And, my friend--

Ira Glass

My father started in radio when he was 19, the same age I was when I started. He began at the college station at the University of Maryland, then after graduation he got a job spinning records at a commercial station in Baltimore. He loved it. He continued doing this on Sunday mornings while he was in the Army, stationed in Virginia. That's where this recording is from.

And at some point my mom got pregnant a second time with me, and he decided to quit radio. It just didn't pay enough. The most he ever made at a radio job was $90 a week, which wasn't much money even then. And at that point he became the person that I knew him as, a certified public accountant. Years ago, I called him for a story for our show to ask about that decision to leave radio, and it was interesting. There was no sentimentality at all, like nothing.

Ira's Dad

By that time, I had realized that radio was not for me. What happened would be a new program director would come in, and if you weren't the apple of that guy's eye then you were out of a job. You got to go start looking for a job again. Even though that never happened to me, I could see it happening to other people. And I wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and I decided that it wasn't going to work out. Radio was not going to work out.

Ira Glass

And that was 1959?

Ira's Dad

Yeah.

Ira Glass

The year I was born.

Ira's Dad

Right.

Ira Glass

Are those two things related?

Ira's Dad

Not at all. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

It sounds like they are.

Ira's Dad

No, they're not. No, they're not.

Ira Glass

I don't know if he wants to take me out of the equation, so I don't feel bad for him quitting radio, but I don't believe him. I do believe that, even in his private moments, today he doesn't regret the decision. His hearing is so bad these days, even with hearing aids, I doubt that he'll hear this story on the radio or online.

I talked to him a couple times this week. He turns 87 on Monday, so part of the population in greatest danger right now. He said he and my stepmom aren't going out. They just figured out how to get groceries delivered. And I'm worried for them.

Ira's Dad

Well, all the stars are on record, and all the records star on the Sunday morning carousel. Coming up for you right now, our featured top tune of the day, number one in the record stores we visited this week in Baltimore.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Diane Wu. Our staff includes Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Noor Gill, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Tony [? Lynn, ?] John [? Elgin, ?] Danielle Elliott, and Chris Crawford.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Trying to be civic-minded and conserve on toilet paper, he tried out a bidet for the first time this week.

Rosie

I was like, oh, well, this isn't really exactly what I wanted.

Ira Glass

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