Transcript

558:

Game Face
Transcript

Originally aired 05.29.2015

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Watching officials from international soccer this week on the news, it was hard not to think, wow, you guys have really learned how to have a game face. You know what I'm talking about? 14 people indicted, many arrested, allegations of bribery and corruption going back years-- the head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, was not indicted, but people were wondering about his involvement. And law enforcement officials have made clear their investigation is not finished. But Blatter was cool. He was composed at the opening ceremony at the FIFA Congress on Thursday.

Sepp Blatter

Many people hold me ultimately responsible for the actions and the reputation of the global football community. We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also tried to hide it.

Ira Glass

By the next day, though, cracks started to appear if you were watching closely, which I was. It was little things. Like, for example, on Thursday Blatter had said--

Sepp Blatter

These are unprecedented and difficult times for FIFA.

Ira Glass

One day later, though, he told the Congress, quote, "I will not call this unprecedented." Apparently somebody reminded him of accusations of bribery and financial mismanagement under his leadership in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2011. That day, Friday, Blatter addressed the FIFA Congress in French. And even the question of his responsibility as FIFA's president seemed to shift like soft ground yielding under a heavyweight.

Sepp Blatter

I'm willing to accept that the president of FIFA is responsible for everything, but I would like to share that responsibility with you, or at the very least with the executive committee here to my left.

Ira Glass

Sometimes, during this address, Blatter's words seemed totally disconnected from his tone. He issued a rallying cry at one point, "let's try to lift our spirits," with the grimness of a doctor delivering awful medical news and an actual grimace at the end, which is to say, even somebody with as much game face as a veteran political operator like Blatter-- he's been part of FIFA's leadership for decades. Even he has his limits.

One of our producers, Jonathan, has this picture in his middle school yearbook, his team picture for sixth grade basketball at Hillview Middle School in Whittier, California. Out of 20 kids, most of them are stony-faced. A few smile or smirk a little bit. He is the only one beaming. He says he didn't get the memo to look tough. It reminded me we have to be taught to have a game face. We have to be taught. It doesn't just happen. Somebody was telling me last week about his daughter's softball league, that they actively coach them on this, on not to cry, not to get upset when there's a bad call or the game doesn't go their way. Don't look like you're losing it, the coach tells the kids. Keep your face neutral. Look like you're in control. That's the key. Look like you're in control.

Well , today our program, we have stories of people in situations that are fraught and difficult, where anybody would have trouble staying composed. But above all, for various reasons in each story, these people have to stay composed. They have to maintain gain phase, which is when you are truly being tested. From WBEZ Chicago, it's "This American Life". I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. 200 Dog Night.

Ira Glass

Act 1, "200 Dog Night."

For a couple summers when she was 19 and 20, Blair Braverman worked as a dog sled guide on an Alaskan glacier. The glacier was part of an ice field the size of Rhode Island made of many glaciers. Blair and 12 other staff members lived with 200 huskies on the ice for a week at a time. Sometimes, actually, it was a lot more than a week. They'd be there for three or four weeks. The guides slept in tents. The dogs slept in little plastic igloos.

And, eight times a day, helicopters would drop off groups of 20 to 30 cruise ship tourists. Of course, like any job dealing with the public, especially a job dealing with tourists, this all required a pretty committed game face, not just stoic, but actively cheerful, and enthusiastic, and-- F-U-N-- fun-- you know, on a glacier-- 'til one day that game face became very, very hard to pull off. Quick note-- we've changed some of the names in this story. Here's Blair.

Blair Braverman

The tour was expensive. Tourists paid $500 each for a half hour helicopter flight and a dog sled ride on the glacier-- total time on the ice, one hour. A lot of my earnings came from tips-- 20s, 50s, or the occasional hundred folded tight and slipped into my jacket cuff as I shook hands at the end of the tour. My job was to provide a luxury experience, a taste of real Alaska. This is from a promo video for the tour.

Man

The sled dogs we have at camp are the real McCoy. These are the dogs that we travel with in the winter and race with. Most of these dogs that will be pulling you today have actually done the Iditarod, many of them several times.

Blair Braverman

We were supposed to provide this taste of Alaska with absolutely no discomfort, either physical or mental, even though physical and mental discomfort is kind of the premise of living on a glacier. It could be brutal. UV rays reflected off the ice and blistered the insides of our nostrils so that it hurt to breathe. It rained a lot, and my skin got so waterlogged that it fell off in white strips. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep the skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists.

The snow we stood on was just a few feet deep, covering solid ice. But the ice would shift and crack. And so, under any given patch of snow, there might be ice, or there might be nothing, a gaping hole hundreds of feet deep. During my job interview, I'd been told that no staff members had died yet. But they couldn't make any promises.

Once in a while, we'd spend a day probing for cracks in the ice, crevasses. We pushed long, thin aluminum poles into the snow every 12 inches or so through the whole camp, praying that the metal would meet resistance. One morning, I climbed from my tent to find that a turquoise lake a half mile wide had appeared overnight right next to camp. It was gone by the next day.

On a bad day, we called the glacier the goddamn ice cube-- on a good day, summer camp on the moon. To the tourists, we called it dog world, as in, welcome to dog world. I'm Blair, and I'll be your dog sled guide. I can't believe how lucky we got with this weather. Eight times a day, I told the tourists that they had lucked into the best weather in weeks. Even when it was pouring rain, I explained that, until they arrived, it had been raining harder.

We tried to spare them the sight of a single piece of dog poop. We cleaned the kennel constantly, scraping up dog hair that collected on the snow and piling it in an enormous mound hidden behind the tents, which we called the woolly mammoth. The tourists didn't mention crevasses, so I didn't either. It wasn't that the reality of glacier life was a secret. We just didn't want to distract from the tourist fantasy that they had been dropped into a pristine wonderland.

By my second summer on the ice, I was having a hard time. Most of the other guides were men and older than me, so I was pretty lonely. To make it worse, I'd made the mistake of dating one of the men the summer before and then breaking up, which didn't exactly make it easy to live together at glacier camp. My ex had taken to badmouthing me to the other staff and even to the tourists. It's too bad you didn't get an experienced guide, I once overheard him tell a couple as he led them to my sled.

My tentmate, Rebecca, was my closest friend on the ice, although I thought of her more like a kid sister. She was a homeschooled 18-year-old from Indiana who had never before been away from her family for more than a week. She'd fallen in love with the idea of dogsledding, the idea of Alaska. And, back home, she saved up money working at McDonald's to buy a malamute and a husky, which she trained to pull her on roller blades. Rebecca lived her life, in her words, guided by Jesus Christ and his teachings.

Together, she and I made easy targets. Other guides blamed us for problems around camp. And we were always the butt of their jokes. I was pretty resigned to it all, but sweet Rebecca was determined to make friends, going out of her way to be helpful, working twice as hard as any of the rest of us. And she dreamed of getting a chance to drive a dogsled. She'd set aside time for it. And somehow, just when she was getting hopeful, someone would yell that they needed her to scoop poop or fetch some booties. And the trip would be delayed again.

At night, Rebecca and I would sit up in our sleeping bags eating trail mix and trading young adult novels about the end of the world. We'd been on the glacier for two months, more than half the summer, and Rebecca still hadn't driven a dogsled. And she was really, really homesick.

Finally, she gave in and bought a plane ticket to see her family. When the morning came for her to leave, I begged for an hour off so I could take her sledding before she left. It was the best ride I'd had all summer. The dogs were happy. It wasn't raining, and Rebecca laughed out loud as she drove the sled. Tourist voices drifted from the neighboring trails, where other people were responsible for them.

Then we heard the high whine of a snowmobile and saw a tiny figure in the distance, our manager, Malcolm, zooming toward us in an orange vest. We had been warned about orange vests. They were worn only to signal an emergency, to communicate urgency to the staff without scaring the tourists. Now, as he barreled up the trail, Malcolm waved to the tourists. Gorgeous day, isn't it? He slowed next to me and Rebecca. We're in trouble, he said. The pilots can't get back.

A sudden storm had descended between the heliport and the glacier. Nobody's hurt, but the tourists are trapped here now, Malcolm said. His voice was higher than I've ever heard it. They're trapped here. I need you to let the staff know what happened without alarming any of the tourists. Just tell them-- I don't know-- that they'll be here longer than they expected, maybe an extra hour or two. More for their money, right? He paused. And girls, try to make it sound like a good thing.

Rebecca and I split up to spread the word. Great news, I announced to each group. You get a longer tour than usual. Then, while the tourists pet the dogs, I sidled up to each musher and quietly told him what was actually going on. Back at camp, Malcolm was standing by the satellite phone thinking. He had called the cruise ship to say that the passengers would be late. The captain agreed to wait three hours, but no longer. So our cook heated a massive pot on the propane stove, preparing cocoa.

Our goal now was to keep things fun for as long as possible, let the tourists hang out in the kennel, then bring them in for hot drinks. Malcolm had plans for snowmobile rides and a snowman building contest. As long as the backup helicopters arrived within an hour or so, which they would, there was no reason for the tourists to know that things weren't going just as intended. But the weather only got worse.

We brought the tourists to the community tent and fed them cookies. Malcolm delivered the solemn news. The helicopters were grounded. The storm had blocked their flight path, and immediate rescue was doubtful. No, a man said. That can't be. My ship leaves at 8:00. Others nodded in agreement. The snow, the ice, being trapped-- it wasn't a possibility.

Then the tourists got angry at the guides for bringing them there, at the pilots for misjudging the weather, at the cruise ships for not waiting. Didn't we understand that this was a serious inconvenience? One woman had left her infant with a baby sitter. A couple was worried about standing up a dinner date. A few people raised concerns about medication they had left back on the ship.

We have a cook, Malcolm said to the tourists. We have plenty of food and water, and we're going to make this as fun for you as we can. Right now, the mushers will go back out to their dogs. And anyone who wants can go on as many dog sled rides as they'd like. The tourists looked dismayed. Malcolm gave them a pleasant nod and stepped outside, gesturing for the staff to follow. I don't care what you need to do, he whispered once we had gathered around him. Just keep them happy. Do whatever it takes. Act like this is the best thing that's ever happened to you. And for heaven's sake, don't do anything that could get us sued.

That afternoon passed in a haze of card games, the tourists constantly checking their watches and their useless cell phones. Someone set up a badminton net in the snow, and a few of the younger tourists played a tournament. Then dusk fell, and it became clear that the tourists would be staying the night. Malcolm and the cook delivered the news alongside platters of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and chocolate cake. Meanwhile, we guides squatted on our heels behind the storage tent and ate sandwiches, too grim to talk.

The tourists were not happy. Here they were dressed in their cruise ship clothes, wearing these weird black overshoes they'd been given to wear on the ice, far away from their toothbrushes, and their pajamas, and their beds, and the breakfast buffets they had already paid for. They didn't understand why they hadn't been rescued. They didn't understand why the helicopters couldn't fly at night.

The storage tent held 30 emergency sleeping bags for just such a situation, although, in 10 years of tours, they'd never been opened. Malcolm told the staff that we would be ceding our tents and cots to the guests, as he insisted we call them. He went tent by tent to make sure the quarters were ready. Put all your stuff in trash bags, he told us. And we'll pile it outside. We want to make sure the guests are comfortable. Where are we going to sleep, Rebecca asked. Malcolm stepped out into the snow. I really don't care, he said.

Rebecca and I ended up sleeping on the floor of the veterinary tent. It reeked of piss and menthol. Neither of us could sleep. I whispered, how are you doing? My flight, she said, voice muffled by her pillow. And it took me a moment to follow. I had forgotten. It leaves the day after tomorrow, she said. I can't get a refund. I tried to think of something to say, some comfort that would make her feel better, but I was just so tired.

The second day passed like the first, although the Parcheesi players had graduated to poker. Every so often, I'd peek into the storage tent to get medical updates. One of the other tourists was an insulin-dependent diabetic. If he were stuck on the ice for just one more day, there was a chance he could slip into a coma.

The word was that, back in civilization, a mountain rescue team was mobilizing, ready to cross the frozen wilderness with ropes and ice picks, carrying insulin and other medications in their packs. But nobody should know any of that, I was reminded. We had to give the impression that, even though we were trapped, everything was going to be just fine. The tourists were busy pining for their ships, for the vacations that had been only temporarily interrupted. And I was to keep it that way. So I returned to the tourists beaming.

When my face got sore from all the smiling, I retreated from the crowd, back to the diabetic man in one of the sleeping tents. He was middle aged. I think he was a banker. He sat on a cot breathing slowly. At one point, I drew a picture of him, a little sketch that he folded and tucked into his breast pocket. Then he took my hand. I'm honored to be spending this time with such a lovely young woman, he said. I squeezed his hand and felt like a liar.

Late in the afternoon, we gathered the tourists in the community tent, planning to break the news about a possible second night. The tourists had been remarkably positive all day. They were troopers. Some of the younger tourists even helped feed the dogs, hauling buckets of soupy kibble from plastic igloo to plastic igloo. A few even sounded like they wanted to stay. I can't believe you get paid for this, they said, sipping their cocoa. If they could take three months off, they said, they'd love to come work here. This, Malcolm noted, was a resounding success. Still, I dreaded the possibility that they would stay for a second night. I thought that would be the breaking point, not just for the diabetic man, but for us, too. How long could we keep this up?

Not long after, we heard a thin rumble in the distance. Everyone froze. At first, I thought it was in my own head. No one had told us the helicopters were coming. But, as they rounded a mountain on the other side of the ice field, the tourists began to cheer. They rushed towards them, stumbling in the snow as the birds landed. In the sudden excitement, I stepped back and watched from the kennel, sitting on a plastic igloo as the guides helped the diabetic man into the first helicopter and the rest of the tourists into the others. Rebecca was able to slip onto the last helicopter, waving at me as she climbed aboard. We watched the helicopters disappear behind the mountains. In the silence that followed, even the dogs were quiet. We'd learn later that the hole in the storm that the helicopters flew through closed up just as fast as it opened, and the last helicopter, the one Rebecca was on, had to make an emergency landing at a lodge near the base of the glacier.

The rest of us trudged back to the tents without speaking to each other. There were sleeping bags to pack up, dogs to feed, and trails to groom, and poop to shovel. In the morning, the helicopters would return, carrying a new group of tourists to experience real Alaska. Though we'd never match the tour we had just given, the tourists who got stuck, they'd paid $500, like all the rest, to experience real Alaska. And they were the only ones who really got what they came for.

Ira Glass

Blair Braverman-- a version of this story is in a book that she's writing that's called, tentatively, "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube". Next week, The Atavist will publish a longer version of the story. That's at TheAtavist.com. By the way, we spoke to the dog sled company in this story. They said that they would never do anything to hide information from the tourists, though a former employee of the company did confirm Blair's account.

[MUSIC - "THE MAN" BY ALOE BLACC]

Act Two. Funny Face.

Ira Glass

Act 2, "Funny Face."

OK, most jobs require you to suck it up and keep a game face on, right? Keep game face on, even while things are going horribly-- that's true for anybody in sales. It's true for waiters and waitresses. It's true for every kind of performer. And, among performers, I think it might be most intense for stand-up comedians, because they're on stage alone. And, when comedy goes badly, you know, it gets very, very bleak. It gets very lonely. And they have to stay up there, doing their job for a group of people that is not into them at all. And they have to just keep going. They have to keep telling punchlines that just are getting nothing back, just crickets one after another after another. Not long ago, Tig Notaro had some shows like that.

Tig Notaro

I performed in Vegas. When you perform in Vegas, you do a week of shows. There's two shows a night-- early, late show. You do 14 shows, basically. And I bombed all 14 shows. And, in between the shows, I didn't know what to do, because I'm not a huge drinker. I don't really gamble. And so, the first night, I decided to go back to my hotel room that was so far away from the venue that I only had enough time to just stand still like this for two minutes, and then walk back to the venue.

So, after that first night, I decided that I would spend the evening-- in between the early and late show, I'd sit in the back corner of the venue, just have a glass of water while they're cleaning the table tops and vacuuming, getting ready for the late show. I did that every night for the rest of the week. And, the last night of the week, my phone rang. And it was my agent calling to tell me that the venue had called him to say that they thought it was weird that I was just sitting in the back corner, and could I please go find something else to do. Do you know how humiliating that was? So humiliating-- because you know that call didn't come from some far away headquarters somewhere. It came from someone in that venue, looking through some little window, just like, yeah, tell her to get out of here. I'm sick of looking at her face.

So, again, I didn't know where to go or what to do. So I took the escalator down to the first floor, and there was an ice cream parlor-- or, I don't know, are they called ice cream parlors? You know, take me to the ice cream parlor. I mean, I'm eight years from 50. I don't just sit and have ice cream by myself just like-- and let me be sure to not use my microphone, which is the exact shape of an ice cream cone.

So I have my ice cream. And I finish my ice cream. I go back up the escalator to the venue. And I do my final show of the week. And I bomb. I get offstage. I shake hands with the audience members. They're just looking at me like, we hate you. I'm just like, feeling is mutual. I shook hands with the other comedians on the show. And they were just like, we cannot stand you. I was like, OK, top hat comedian, you're right. I'm horrible.

But I went, got paid in the office. And I went back to my hotel room. I put on my pajamas, little pants that had little pigs flying all over them. I looked adorable. It was my one small victory of the week. Then I went in to brush my tooth. And that is when I caught my reflection in the mirror and saw that I had a full-blown chocolate mustache on [INAUDIBLE]. No!

My brain completely replaying everything that evening-- I'm on stage bombing for one hour with a full-blown chocolate mustache on my face. And then I'm very face to face, intimately shaking hands with the audience members. Nobody was like, oh, you have-- no-- just hating me-- shaking hands with the other comedians. Then I go get paid by the guy that I am certain was who made the original phone call telling me to get out of there and find something else to do. Guess who found something else to do? Yeah, me. I went and had a little bit of ice cream for myself. What was he thinking when I was sitting there in that office with him, a full-grown woman with a full-blown chocolate mustache on my face?

You know, could I not just glance in the mirror before I get on stage? What is my checklist before a show? Belly full of ice cream, check-- head on stage What did he-- did he think I had put on a fake mustache to sneak back into the venue he had kicked me out of? Just hopped on stage-- not so funny anymore, is it, Vegas? They're just like, we never thought you were.

Ira Glass

Tig Notaro-- that story is part of the material she's working up for her first HBO comedy special. It's called "Tig Notaro, Boyish Girl Interrupted." It airs in August, on Saturday, August 22nd, 10:00 Eastern, exclusively on HBO. Her tour schedule is at TigNation.com. Coming up, people who never, ever can actually have a game face, like their bodies prevent that from happening biologically. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. Who Put the Face in Game Face?

Ira Glass

It's "This American Life." I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- game face.

Bobby Knight

My entire adult life, I've never used the expression game face. I have no [BLEEP] idea what it means or what you're supposed to--

Ira Glass

That's legendary Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight back in a 1992 press conference. And, after he says that he doesn't know what a game face is supposed to be, he makes a series of fake, intense faces-- scowls and grimaces-- ridiculing the idea of a game face.

Mike Pesca

The biggest regret of my life is not asking a question that Bobby Knight ever got mad at in a press conference.

Ira Glass

That's Mike Pesca, one of the hosts of the sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," also the host of the daily podcast "The Gist with Mike Pesca." He's the person who told me about the apparently very famous Bobby Knight quote about game face.

Mike Pesca

He meant it to say it's a ridiculous notion that real athletes don't have. And what I feel--

Ira Glass

Because his attitude was just, like, we're out there doing our jobs. we're intense people doing a job. We're not putting on a mask.

Mike Pesca

That's right. And, as I think about it, Bobby Knight was like that all the time. And so a lot of these guys-- not everyone, but a lot of these guys-- they don't have game face. That's what they live. If you're an intense, competitive person, that's how you live.

Ira Glass

The fact is, though, not all athletes feel the way that Bobby Knight did about this. Some of them consciously cultivate their game faces, Pesca says. They talk about wanting to intimidate.

Mike Pesca

So Dennis Eckersley, a great relief pitcher-- he had a long, flowing black mustache. And he would talk about his own self-image as Black Bart, as a bad cowboy who came to town. And he was going to mow down the opposition. Randy Johnson, who is an extremely tall major league pitcher, would lean out over the mound. And he had a scowl on his face. And I also think there is a classic predator and prey situation. You know, in nature, predators have their eyes closer to their nose. Prey have their eyes on either side. And I think, when Randy Johnson is scowling at you, you feel fear.

Ira Glass

Other players with great game faces that Mike pointed to-- Bob Gibson from the Cardinals, Roger Clemens, John Starks and Charles Oakley of the Knicks, Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears. When it comes to the player with the greatest game face in sports, the game faciest game face, we went on a search. And we believe that it is none of those guys. We nominate a hockey player, an old school guy.

Ira Glass

So, in this week's show, we're going to make the case for Terry Sawchuk.

Mike Pesca

Good case-- sad case.

Ira Glass

Why sad?

Mike Pesca

Terry Sawchuk played-- he was one of the best goalies in NHL history. And he played in an era-- a benighted era-- where it was all about toughness. And we can't believe this, but goalies didn't wear masks. The game wasn't any different. The puck wasn't any softer, just goalies didn't wear masks.

Ira Glass

So there were no protective masks. And Sawchuk was this relentless guy who won four Stanley cups and was injured so many times that, at some point, Life Magazine did this photo of his face where a makeup artist and a doctor basically just recreated all the scars and all the places that he had been stitched up. And when you see it, he looks like Frankenstein. It's hard to see it and not think Frankenstein. And his face took so many of these injuries because of something that Sawchuk is famous for inventing, a way of being a goalie that actually took his unmasked face and put it directly into the line of fire.

David Dupuis

Before Terry came along in 1950 in the NHL, goalies tended to stand and bend a little wee bit at the knee.

Ira Glass

That's David Dupuis, who wrote a biography of Terry Sawchuk. He says that stance meant the goalie's head was higher than the top of the goal. But Sawchuk bent over. He bent over at the middle. If you've watched a professional hockey game in the last, like, half a century, pretty much any goalie you see is imitating Sawchuk.

David Dupuis

His back is almost flat. I mean--

Ira Glass

It's almost like parallel to thee ice.

David Dupuis

Almost parallel to the ice. His wife Pat used to tell him that she thought she could put a cup of coffee on his back, and it wouldn't get spilled. And his face would be low, creating a great sense of gravity, helped him to move laterally. But it put his face directly-- almost the first thing in line with the puck. It was a great show of courage, but it tended to help his getting 600 facial stitches.

Ira Glass

Yeah, how often was he hit by the puck? How often was his face hit?

David Dupuis

Well, 600 facial stitches-- I would guess probably maybe 20 times a season, sometimes excessive enough that-- remember the Red Wing doctor, Dr. John Finley, telling me that one time Terry had been hit in the nose so severely that the front cartilage was tore, almost hanging by a thread.

Ira Glass

That is, half his nose almost came off his face.

David Dupuis

And he stitched it back on. And I remember him saying that you or I, in our profession, or any profession, would be sidelined for weeks. He sutured Terry up, and Terry went right back out and played the rest of the game.

Sports Announcer

All set to go now, Stankowski with [INAUDIBLE]

Ira Glass

Here's a not unusual day at work for Sawchuk, a playoff game from 1967 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sports Announcer

[INAUDIBLE] to Bobby Howe. There's the shot. Oh, and Sawchuk was hit and knocked flat. Terry Sawchuk took that tremendous blast off the stick of Bobby Hull-- boom, down goes Sawchuk. What a tremendous shot from short range. The way he went down, Bill, it-- well, we watch him get up now. Get a good look at Terry Sawchuk. He's got bruises all over his body from other shots taken in this series. Watching him in the dressing room the other night, one shoulder was yellow, and blue, and orange-- every color in the rainbow, it appeared. And it was that same left shoulder.

Ira Glass

Off the ice, Sawchuk's life was pretty tragic. Dupuis talked to people close to him, and he says that Sawchuk was an alcoholic for his whole career, mentally abusive to his kids and wife, a vicious drunk who would rant, and rave, and throw things. He died at 40 from medical complications that he got after a fight with a teammate. The fight was over nothing-- some bills, Dupuis says. I mean, that's what it started as, anyway. It began at the bar and continued at their rented house.

David Dupuis

They're swinging at each other, and Terry falls on a part of a barbecue. And then he realizes he's badly hurt. He's got an injury to his abdomen.

Ira Glass

It just seems so-- I don't know, so--

David Dupuis

Senseless?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Dupuis

Yeah, it's senseless.

Ira Glass

You know, the whole idea of a game face implies that somebody's putting it on, like they're putting on like-- you know, like they're acting. But with him, do you feel like he was ever acting on the ice?

David Dupuis

No. No, never. What you saw is what you got. He was intense. There's no doubt about it. He was intense. And it's funny. Sometimes, before a game, he would look to a teammate and said, hey boys, I only need two tonight. And they would end up winning the game 2-1.

Ira Glass

All right, in other words, you just need to score two points, and we'll win.

David Dupuis

Yep, two goals-- just get me two goals, and we're going to win this thing.

Ira Glass

In 1962, Sawchuk decided to start wearing a goalie's mask. Barely any goalies were doing it back then. But he was so tough, Dupuis says, everybody else felt like it was now OK for them to start as well. And they did. Since then, hockey goalies don't put their faces in direct danger the same way Sawchuk did. So none of them can come close to the game faciest game face in the sport.

[MUSIC - "U DON'T KNOW" BY JAY-Z]

Act Four. Frankly Miss Scarlet.

Ira Glass

Act 4, "Frankly, Miss Scarlett." so a few weeks ago, at a story meeting, everybody here at the radio show-- we were sitting around talking about this week's episode and what game face is all about. And one of people who works here, Elna Baker, raised the whole idea of blushing, how blushing is the opposite of game face. The world sees exactly what you're thinking and what you're feeling, especially for people who blush a lot. In fact, there's a whole kind of blushing that's known as chronic or pathological blushing. And there are medical papers about this. There are online forums. People who blush many times each day-- basically, they have an overactive nervous system. Their blushing mechanism is on a hair trigger.

So anyway, sitting there talking about all this. And finally Elna said she has it. And a bunch of use are like, wait, you have it? At which point Elna-- she didn't say anything. She unwraps this black scarf that she'd been wearing on her neck. And, you know, the skin right below her neck-- they were just covered with red blotches. Now I've known Elna for like five or six years and, until this moment, it never occurred to me that, like a person who's been bitten by a vampire in a bad movie, Elna is always wearing a scarf or a turtleneck.

And Elna told all of us she'd been thinking about getting surgery. Yes, there's surgery which can make you stop blushing. And she'd been talking about it with friends. And she'd even made an appointment to consult with a doctor about it, at which point another producer on staff, Sean Cole, said he'd researched the surgery for a story that he never ended up doing years ago. And he remembered that it had these possible serious side effects. And he wondered, was Elna really seriously considering this? And he said, if she was, he could help her research whether this was a good idea or not and decided she should do it. And so, with that in mind, Sean has this report.

Sean Cole

So the first thing you need to understand about Elna's blushing is that it's not really what you think of when you think of blushing. She doesn't go red in the face all of a sudden when something embarrassing happens. Instead, the redness comes on slowly, starting on her chest, and working its way up her neck to her face and ears. And it can catch her by surprise sometimes.

Elna Baker

Like it just happened yesterday in the shower.

Sean Cole

In the shower?

Elna Baker

Yeah, I was showering. And I looked down. I'm like, why am I broken into hives? Or not hives-- I have to stop calling it that.

Sean Cole

But they're hive-like.

Elna Baker

Hive-like red splotches-- you can really see it, because the splotches almost look like countries all over me as they grow.

Sean Cole

You're like a map of the world.

Elna Baker

Yes.

Sean Cole

But does it seem like it's like a social-- you're checking your chest to see if it's happening now.

Elna Baker

That's the one that I said was the-- like, when that one starts--

Sean Cole

Oh, that's the canary in the coal mine one.

Elna Baker

Yeah, that's the trigger one.

Sean Cole

Wow, it always starts with one particular part of your chest.

Elna Baker

Yep.

Sean Cole

And it's just because you're talking about it.

Elna Baker

Mhm.

Sean Cole

This has caused a real problem in terms of Elna's job. She only works on our show for part of the week. A lot of her life involves being on stage. She's made appearances at the storytelling show "The Moth." She's gone on tours with "The Moth." She auditions for commercials and other acting gigs, and sometimes gets those parts.

Elna Baker

So I'm heading into my show.

Sean Cole

I asked her to record herself as she went around during the day, to see how much she blushes. And here she's just arriving at a storytelling event.

Elna Baker

And, in anticipation, on the subway, I already broke into hives, so I am arriving with hives on my chest already, because I'm nervous that I'm going to break into hives when I perform, because I will.

Sean Cole

Now there's a name for the thought process Elna just described, and it's a word I love-- erythrophobia. It literally means fear of the color red, but it can also mean fear of blushing. That is, you worry you're going to blush. And then the worry makes you blush. And then you're embarrassed that you're blushing, and so you blush harder, and so on.

Elna Baker

I wish that you didn't have to know how I was feeling, like you didn't have to see it. I have a tell. I have a huge tell all over me, and I'm wearing it all the time.

Sean Cole

When you research this condition, you can find stories of people going to extreme measures to hide their blushing. I heard about more than one blusher who deliberately got a sunburn before having to make a presentation. One woman would only agree to meet people in bars where the lights were red. Another, who was planning her wedding, visited 60 churches looking for the one with the shortest distance between the curb and the front door, so the fewest number of strangers would see her walking in in her dress. Yet another blusher, who was an engineer, carried around this electrical device he built himself and would shock himself to try to keep from turning red. And it didn't work.

Many chronic blushers will go out of their way to avoid people. They withdraw. Some develop serious depression. And a few years ago-- you might have read about this in the news-- there was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle who felt tortured by his blushing. His dorm room was on the 11th floor, but he always took the stairs so that he didn't have to risk blushing in front of people in the elevator. Finally, one day, he wrote a five-page letter to his family and threw himself off the 11th floor balcony. In the letter, he said, quote, it's exhausting to wake up every day and have to find little ways to avoid blushing situations.

Elna blushes about three or four times a day. It used to be less, but something happened about a year and a half ago that made the problem a lot worse. She was auditioning for a sitcom, a very big role, and a role that mirrored her life in a lot of ways. She really wanted the part. The producers really wanted her to have the part. And it mattered so much to her that she threw all of her will into not blushing. She repeated to herself, over and over, you're not going to blush. You're not going to blush. You can probably guess what happened. The head of the network watched Elna's test and said she looked too nervous on camera. She says, after that happened, she sort of threw up her hands.

Elna Baker

And now it happens all the time.

Sean Cole

Oh, so that was a moment where you felt like it had won.

Elna Baker

It won, yeah. But then it also makes me think the only way to fix it is to get this surgery.

Sean Cole

So the surgery-- Elna's been weighing the pros and cons of it for a while. And I wanted to see if I could help her land on one side or the other. The operation itself has another name I love. It's called an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, or ETS. That is, they tunnel a little camera, a scope, through small incisions in your upper torso or thorax, thoracic, and they cut out your sympathy. I'm kidding. They burn out part of what's called your sympathetic nerve on both sides of your body. It's responsible for blushing and also sweating in your face and hands. It was actually pioneered to cure excessively sweaty palms. And then they figured out it works for blushing, too.

Sean Cole

So what have you thought-- like, what is the conversation in your head about the surgery?

Elna Baker

I want to get it. I think the only thing is I don't want a droopy eye.

Sean Cole

That's one of the potential side effects. Your eyelid hangs kind of low. It's also called Horner's syndrome, but it's pretty rare.

Enrique Jadresic

The doctor told me that there was a 1% probability of me developing the Horner's syndrome.

Sean Cole

I talked with a few people who actually had the surgery, to see how it worked out for them, starting with this guy, Enrique Jadresic.

Enrique Jadresic

I am a former chronic blusher. And the other thing, which I find interesting, is that I am a doctor.

Sean Cole

He's a psychiatrist in Santiago, Chile. He now treats other blushers in his practice. And he also wrote one of very few books you can find about the condition, part of which is about his own struggles with the problem. He told me about this one time he was teaching at his university. And, out of nowhere-- he doesn't remember why-- he turned red in the face. And a student, who was maybe 22 years old, looked up at him and said, oh professor, you've gone into the cherry tree again, which I guess sounds better in Spanish.

Enrique Jadresic

And that was awful. I mean, for me who-- I was an authority, you see?

Sean Cole

Yeah.

Enrique Jadresic

I was supposed to be the one who knew everything, you see?

Sean Cole

The cherry tree.

Enrique Jadresic

That's very uncomfortable.

Sean Cole

Every time Dr. Jadresic was out and about, he was constantly looking around for people he knew, worried that someone might come up out of nowhere and say hello, which would make him blush. It was exhausting. And then he was asked to run for president of this big Chilean psychiatric and neurology society. It was the equivalent of Elna's TV audition. But he hesitated, because he knew he'd have to travel and make appearances in front of people. It was around that time that he read about the surgery in a Chilean newspaper. And, about two months after he had the operation--

Enrique Jadresic

I went to a pharmacy. And the lady who was selling at the pharmacy said, oh Dr. Jadresic, how are you? And everybody turned to me to see me. And she said-- and she would speak very loudly. I don't know why. But she would speak very loudly. And she said, oh Dr. Jadresic, are you still considered one of the most handsome mens at the teaching hospital where I knew you? And I couldn't believe it, but I didn't blush.

Sean Cole

Wow.

Enrique Jadresic

And that told me, of course, that the operation had been successful.

Sean Cole

Since then, Dr. Jadresic has become something of an expert on blushers and blushing. He's seen about 800 blushers in his practice, read up on different theories as to why we blush. Charles Darwin wrote a whole chapter on blushing in his book, "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals." He starts off, quote, "Blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions." So no other animal does it. Dr. Jadresic and other people in his field think maybe people blush to signal to the group, I know I screwed up. Don't attack me. So it's a protective measure. Blushers are very respectful of others, Jadresic says-- very nice people, overall.

Enrique Jadresic

People who blush are very empathic. They put themselves in the pants of people in front of them.

Sean Cole

In the pants--

Enrique Jadresic

And you know, in psychiatry, the opposite-- the complete opposite-- would be the psychopath. Psychopaths never blush.

Sean Cole

The empathy thing is certainly true of Elna.

Elna Baker

I could be watching a TV show, and something happens to someone on the show. And I'll look down, and I'll be blushing on behalf of this embarrassing thing that happened to a person on the screen.

Sean Cole

I mean, that seems like a really nice quality.

Elna Baker

But maybe I care too much. Maybe it would be good to have the edge taken off.

Sean Cole

Dr. Jadresic didn't develop Horner's syndrome, the droopy eye. But he does have to cope with a really common side effect of the sympathectomy. He doesn't sweat from his head or his hands. The operation cuts off the sweat response in those two places. So your body compensates by sweating in weirder places, like your chest, back, groin, and feet. Dr. Jadresic says you especially need to bear that in mind if you live in a hot climate. Elna was unfazed.

Elna Baker

Well I've never been a sweater. I don't have problems with sweating.

Sean Cole

Yet--

Elna Baker

Yet-- to me it seems easier to hide sweating than blushing.

Sean Cole

I don't know. I feel like we're underestimating the level of sweating that we're talking about.

Elna Baker

Swamp--

Sean Cole

The swampy feeling--

Elna Baker

But see, I don't care about the feeling. I could feel sweaty. And, as long as you didn't have to know or see, then I could keep faking it. That's the-- this ruins my ability to fake it.

Sean Cole

The surgery can also lower your heart rate which, by most accounts, is not noticeable, unless you're like an Olympic athlete. But this one guy I talked to, who's pretty athletic, likes to run in the morning, says, yeah, he noticed it. And that is by far not the worst thing that happened to him after the surgery. He didn't want his real name used. I'll call him Rich.

Like Elna, he has a "there was a moment when the blushing won" story. He had to give this presentation at school and just couldn't-- physically couldn't. So we high-tailed it out of the building and dropped the course. Not long after that, his father helped him pay for the operation.

Rich

And, after the surgery, I felt like I had a superpower, like I was invincible. I could speak up again. I was in a philosophy class. I argued with the teacher just for the sake of arguing. It was just great. It was a great-- very great while it lasted.

Sean Cole

Everything was fine for a while. But, about five or six months after the surgery, Rich was at home. And there was a kind of family reunion going on at his house.

Rich

And my mother hugged me, like in front of a lot of people. And that caused me to become embarrassed. And, out of nowhere, I felt my face turn red again. The problem just came back full force.

Sean Cole

Rich isn't sure what happened. He had a different version of the surgery, where they clamp the nerve instead of cutting it. But still, it should have worked. It's possible they didn't clamp the nerve in the right place. There are other cases like this, where the surgery failed, which is another thing I told Elna to keep in mind. In any case, Rich was back at square one and literally thought he was going to lose his mind. And then a psychiatrist prescribed him Prozac.

Rich

It waters you down. It waters me down enough to where I don't have a blushing problem anymore.

Sean Cole

Really?

Rich

Yeah, the Prozac-- that has cured me.

Sean Cole

I heard from other folks that Prozac can be an effective weapon against blushing, even Dr. Jadresic, whose life was totally improved by the surgery. He says he doesn't really promote the operation to his patients. Rather, he tells them to do a three-month trial of a drug like Prozac first and then decide. And he says six out of 10 patients stick with the medication.

Elna Baker

I just don't like the idea of medicating myself.

Sean Cole

And why not?

Elna Baker

Because it alters my state of mind.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Elna Baker

I feel like that's such an American solution. It's like just medicate it away.

Sean Cole

And surgery is not?

Elna Baker

No, surgery's the best solution ever.

Sean Cole

I decided I need to talk with someone who had studied the procedure at length. And I found the perfect guy, a surgeon in Sweden named Christer Drott. He says he's performed this operation more than 2,500 times. Not only that, he worked on a long range survey of thousands of people who got sympathectomies for blushing, but also for excessive sweating in the palms and face. They were tracked for almost 15 years and answered questions about how satisfied they were with the surgery and how effective it had been. Overall, about 73% of the blushers were satisfied, which means another 27% were not.

Christer Drott

Yes, they were either dissatisfied, or even they regretted having the procedure.

Sean Cole

And why?

Christer Drott

Partly because of the side effects, and partly because of poor effects.

Sean Cole

Poor effect-- that it didn't work?

Christer Drott

Yes. And that, I think, is due to the fact that, in the beginning, we were not aware that we had no effect on the blotchy type on the neck and chest.

Sean Cole

Wait, you're saying that this operation has no effect on the kind of blushing that's the blotchy type that happens on your chest and neck?

Christer Drott

Yes, that's correct. It has only effect on the rapid onset type of blushing in embarrassing situation, the blushing that emerges within seconds.

Sean Cole

This is really important, because one of the people that we talked to in this story, my friend Elna-- she has that slowly emerging, blotchy redness. And she's considering getting the surgery, in fact.

Christer Drott

I would dissuade her from that.

Sean Cole

I broke the news to Elna.

Elna Baker

Uh, wow. It's disappointing. But it's good to know. The pro-con list has shifted. Finding out that it won't even work is kind of like, OK.

Sean Cole

That puts it solidly in the con list.

Elna Baker

Solidly in the con list--

Sean Cole

Yeah.

The science around why it wouldn't work for Elna is complicated, to the extent that it's even understood at all. But the best theory is that it isn't Elna's sympathetic nerve that's causing her blushing. It's her adrenal glands. It's adrenaline. Dr. Drott says that's the most likely culprit for the slow onset blotchy blushing. And so these folks tend to blush when they're experiencing stress. It takes more to make them blush than the rapid onset blushers, who can be set off by little things, like bumping into a friend on the street, whereas with Elna, even that time she'd blushed in the shower-- it was stress. She says she was thinking of all the things she had to do that day and getting worked up.

Elna Baker

But I think, like, the thing behind the thing is I know it's me.

Sean Cole

What do you mean?

Elna Baker

Like I'm doing this.

Sean Cole

So you think there's some amount of agency that maybe you--

Elna Baker

There must be.

Sean Cole

Mhm.

Elna Baker

And if I could figure out how not to do it-- like, there must be something that I could think, or do, or--

Sean Cole

There is something Elna can think and do, according to Dr. Drott, the surgeon. Rather it's something she could not do. It's the simplest thing and possibly more effective than the sympathectomy, or drugs, or anything else.

Christer Drott

Some people blush terribly, and they don't care. Oh yes, I've seen the former Norwegian Prime Minister--

Sean Cole

That's former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Christer Drott

Was blushing like a street lamp-- but she didn't care. She was prime minister anyway.

Sean Cole

So you think that, if Elna didn't care as much that she blushed, she would blush less.

Christer Drott

Yes.

Sean Cole

You do think that.

Christer Drott

Oh, yes.

Sean Cole

Of course, this is an easy thing to say. When I gave Elna the good doctor's advice, she said-- did you ask him how Elna can not care?

Sean Cole

So what do you think you'll do now?

Elna Baker

Um, I don't know. I think what I've learned from doing this-- like, I'm not blushing right now.

Sean Cole

I noticed that, actually.

Elna Baker

That's kind of amazing.

Sean Cole

Yeah, it is kind of amazing.

Elna Baker

Because I've told people. The fact that now everyone in the meeting knows that I blush, whereas I've been keeping that a secret for 3 and 1/2 years, and wearing turtlenecks, and scarves, and hiding it, if it happens, I think that they'll not judge me. And I feel like that is going to help, too.

Sean Cole

I mean, I don't think any of us would have ever judged you about it in the first place. But now it'll just be like, oh, that's that thing.

Elna Baker

That thing she does.

Sean Cole

In fact, at the most recent story meeting, Elna showed up without wearing a scarf, and she didn't blush.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "POKER FACE" BY ORBA SQUARA]

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar and me, with Zoe Chase, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robin Semien, Alissa Shipp, Julie Snyder, and Nancy Updike, editing help from Joel Lovell, production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind's our Operations Director. Emily Condon's our Production Manager. Elise Bergerson's our Office Manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Research help today from Michelle Harris and Chrispher Swetala. Music help from Damian Gray, from Rob Gettis. Special thanks today to Eric Mennel, Mark Sikes, Christian [INAUDIBLE], Martin Johnson, Stephen Bodson, Paul [? Patsco, ?] Randall [? Maggs, ?] [? Jeff Kline, ?] Stan Fischler, and Jeremy Price. Our website, where you can see that amazing photo from Life Magazine of Terry Sawchuk looking like Frankenstein-- it's really something-- ThisAmericanLive.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, who stopped going to the Gap because the customers just act so weird in the dressing room.

Torey Malatia

They put themselves in the pants of people in front of them.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "GAME FACE" BY TOKYO MASSAGE]