Transcript

583:

It’ll Make Sense When You’re Older
Transcript

Originally aired 03.25.2016

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/583

Prologue.


Chana Joffe-Walt

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt sitting in for Ira Glass this week. In today's show, we've got stories of people at a moment of understanding something they could not have grasped before when they were younger-- stories from childhood, 10 years old, all the way up through old age, 79.

So let's start at the beginning. I should say that the entire premise of this show, the idea that there are certain things that do not make sense when you're young, it is flat out offensive to the people at the beginning of our story.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Have you guys ever heard the phrase, you'll understand this when you're older? Or this will make sense--

Bernard

Oh, my gosh.

Samantha

Yes. A bunch of times.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm sitting with a half dozen sixth graders at a table in their middle school. And a small guy with glasses and a comic book name Bernard Arthur keeps shaking his head.

Bernard

I'm at the point where I'm used to it now, you know? Because they say it lots of times. And it's not only from my mom. It's from her friends, from adults, and from everybody. So I'm just really sick of it.

To be honest, to be completely honest--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Be completely honest.

Bernard

I know-- we all know mostly everything about life.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, so you don't believe that phrase at all?

Bernard

It's not like we know everything, but we know mostly what adults think we don't know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Bernard just feels like that stuff you think I'm not ready for? I am. Let's talk.

At least three kids at the table raise a finger and politely say, "um, I'd like to add to that." They've all got examples of questions they asked recently that were met with some version of, you'll understand later. A brief selection, why do you smoke? Why did she commit suicide? Why do I have to go to school?

What does it mean to hit puberty? Who is puberty? And why would you hit her?

How do you say butt hole in Spanish? It's a pretty broad range, right?

A girl named Samantha Boome says sometimes you don't even have to ask a question to be shut down with the "you'll understand later," even if it's not those exact words. Like the other night, she came into the kitchen. And her mom and grandpa were talking in loud voices, maybe they were fighting.

Samantha

And I was like, "hey, can I get the cookie jar to get some cookies?" And they're like, "no. You can't. You'll learn when you get older."

Chana Joffe-Walt

She's saying, you'll learn when you get older.

Samantha

I'm like, but I was just asking for a cookie. She's like, "I'm not in the mood right now. I'm talking to your grandfather." I'm like, "oh, my god. But, Mom, chill out." And then I had to walk out of the room. I'm like, sheesh. Now I can't get a cookie.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I think to kids, this phrase can feel both dismissive and like we, the adults, are abdicating our responsibility, giving up on even trying. Like Jasper Pena says, when he asks what seems like a pretty simple question, sometimes grown-ups say--

Jasper

Probably only God knows the answer. I don't know the answer, but I know that God knows it. And I get frustrated when they say that.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why?

Jasper

Because you're like, I know that they know the answers. And something's telling me they know the answers.

Samantha

You can't have a conv-- you can, but you can't like physically have a conversation with him and ask him the question. That's like--

Chana Joffe-Walt

With God?

Samantha

Yeah. It's better if you ask an actual person because they will actually give you an answer because they know the people, instead of God.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She wants an actual person. These kids want answers. Well, today on our show, we have answers. Or rather, we have people arriving at the answers themselves, with or without the help of others. People looking ahead in time for clues of what's to come, and looking back at the remarkable facts that they somehow missed. We're going to travel from childhood on up, stopping at all the points where people do understand, finally. We've got Sasheer Zamata from Saturday Night Live. Stay with us.

Act One. Adolescence.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act One, Adolescence. When the biggest thing that does not make sense is often just the immediate future and how you're going to get through it. Here's Hillary Frank.

Hillary Frank

There's this kid in my town. We'll call him Ben. A few years ago, Ben was starting high school, and he turned 15. He asked his parents if he could throw a party. They said yes, but if we see any alcohol, we're shutting it down. Ben's like, fine.

The day of the party he takes a walk with his five closest guy friends. They're sort of his planning committee. They tell him they're going to text invites to, like, 30 people. Mostly, they're other geeky guy friends. Also, their friends tell him, we're going to invite some popular girls.

Ben

They were basically like, you'll be the man for a week if you do this.

Hillary Frank

They all go back to Ben's house. And the popular girls, they're actually the first to show up.

Ben

And then half an hour in, I make the biggest mistake of my life up to this point when one of the girls, one of the "popular," quote, unquote, girls asked me what my address was. And in my mind-- in my freshman mind-- they were getting picked up. They were already getting picked up, like they were telling their parents to come get them. Because that's what asking for an address meant to me at this time, like, completely innocent thing.

Hillary Frank

Four or five more girls asked for Ben's address. Of course, these kids are not calling their rides. They're texting his address to all their friends.

So the party slowly starts growing. And then a bunch of older kids show up. Then Ben hears banging outside on his garage door. Suddenly, there's a bunch of upperclassman everywhere.

Ben

They were coming up from behind, in the flanks, and the front. And people were looking in the bushes and crawling to all the different windows, looking in, seeing who's in there. I'd say about half of them are people I know. But it's the people I know that I would never want them to come. And it's kids that bullied me in middle school and elementary school. And they're calling people inside trying to get in through the back.

Hillary Frank

This thing that was happening to Ben, it's straight out of every memorable teen party movie. His little birthday celebration was crashed. But what was happening here is different from those movies in one key way, a way that seems to be specific to my town and towns nearby.

Upperclassman conspire to target freshman parties, freshman like Ben. And at these parties, the parents are home. The older kids, though, they are not deterred by parents. Parents can be yelling at them to get off their lawn, and the kids will pretend to go, but really they are sneaking in around back. And once they get in, they tell the younger kids, this is our party now.

This is so common in my town that parents are calling it parasiting. They try to deal with it themselves. They try not to call the cops. They don't want their kids to be humiliated, but it can get overwhelming.

One mom I talked to got a call from a friend while this was going on at her house. The friend warned her, they'll find a way around you. You can't stop them.

Ben

It's like a military raid. It's like D-Day. It's like any sort of multifaceted attack where the base is just completely up for grabs and anything goes. And all morals are just thrown out the window completely.

Hillary Frank

The party has more than doubled in size. There are now 70 kids at Ben's house. His mom's on the lawn, calling out kids by name and threatening to tell their parents that they were here. His dad is getting into it with some kid who's trying to push his way inside the house.

Ben looks around. He's surrounded by strangers-- older strangers. They're chugging beer. They're on their phones explaining to their friends the best method of breaking into the house. Ben's standing right next to them as they're doing this. Someone turns up the music, and a corner of the basement suddenly becomes a dance floor. The toilet is full of beer cans.

Ben

There is this girl who's chugging something. I don't remember. I told her, "can you please not do this?" And she looked at me and in the most rude, sarcastic voice said to me, "like, thanks for the hospitality," and turned around and just trudged back in a different direction.

Hillary Frank

After about an hour, kids started calling their friends telling them to not bother coming in. This party was lame. And as quickly as they came, they left.

Ben

I was freaking out the entire time. I'm still freaking out about it just thinking about it. It was horrible. It was pretty scarring.

Hillary Frank

For the rest of Ben's freshman year, he was terrified of older kids. He'd go to parties, but he hated when they'd get blown up. He hated when the older kids would take their control away.

But Ben grew up. He's a senior now. And he says--

Ben

Somewhere between softball and junior year, I just decided I was completely comfortable with showing up with my friends to random people's houses and treating them with the same lack of respect that I was treated with when I was in ninth grade because that's what you do.

Hillary Frank

He started getting those texts saying there's a party happening at so-and-so's and house. Let's blow it up. He started getting invited more and more till eventually the text would just be an address, nothing else. But he'd know what it meant.

[YELLING]

This sound comes from a video that Ben sent me that one of his friends shot at a party.

Ben

All the (PRETENDING TO YELL) "yo's" and "look at that"-- it's all just like you're kind of in awe where you've ended up in that moment. "That's that kid from my biology class. Like, oh, my god. Come over here."

Hillary Frank

That's one of the things Ben told me he loves about crashing freshman parties. You never know who's going to show up. It's like nobody's invited, so everybody's invited.

Also, it's super convenient. There's always a party because you don't have to wait for your friend's parents to go out of town. And Ben says it's thrilling, what it takes to get into the house -- the Black Ops -- getting intel from your friends inside about which entryways are guarded and which are clear.

Ben

But yes, it is like a stealth mission a lot of the times, seeking out which route is the most efficient form of entry. Next time, maybe I'll bring a notepad and sketch out my ideas or draw a blueprint of the house because that's basically what we're doing.

Hillary Frank

And it feels OK to you, even though that happened to you when you were a freshman?

Ben

Well, let me put it this way. And this is kind of not the best mentality. But if I don't show up, nothing is going to change. So I'm going to show up like everyone else because me not going isn't going to stop anything from happening.

Well, in reality, I never pictured myself as one of those kids. We would always be like, wow, those kids are such jerks. We'll never be like them. But once you're older, you just-- your mindset turns into, I am one of the older kids. I have power over the younger kids. And that is a new form of intimidation.

Hillary Frank

Ben spent two hours at my house sitting on my couch answering my questions. It all seemed to be getting a little too real for him. He was struggling to make sense of the boy he'd been and the man he'd become. By the end, he was lying down, rubbing his head.

Ben

Wow, I'm really just-- I'm really just conflicting myself everywhere.

Hillary Frank

Ben started philosophizing, talking about all the ways you change so quickly during those years in high school. He told me there are three phases when it comes to blowing up parties. Phase one is when you get blown up. You're an innocent, naive little freshman. Phase two, you're doing the blowing up. And it is deliciously sadistic. Phase three, you're kind of over it.

Ben

And I realized that that's just like the circle of life in high school. It's like at a certain point you reach a sort of wise, old sage status because I guess we're getting more mature now. But there is a gap between your immaturity and your maturity where you're still immature but you think you aren't.

So you take the authority, and you say, I have the right to show up at this person's house because I'm old. And I'm 16 years old. And I'm going to be applying to college soon. And I grew a mustache a few days ago.

Hillary Frank

What would you say now to your freshman self?

Ben

I would say, don't let other people decide who's going to come to your house. Or I would say, don't have a party ever.

Hillary Frank

Ben's got a few months left in his senior year. He's more choosy about parties these days, but he says he'll still go because he's got to do this while he still can. In the fall, he'll start college. And he's pretty sure the parties there will be more sophisticated. And by that, I mean he won't have to break and enter. He'll walk through the front door like a real grown-up.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Hillary Frank is host of the wonderful parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time. It's on the Earwolf network. longestshortesttime.com.

Act Two. Grown.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act Two, Grown.

Sasheer Zamata is a comedian. She's on Saturday Night Live. She does a lot of her own stand-up. And like a lot of comics, Sasheer uses the stage to rehash real things that happened to her and try to make sense of them.

But recently, Sasheer felt like there was more to figure out about the stuff she was saying on stage. A warning-- the thing that kicked this off for her involves a nasty word, a racial slur. And there is no way for her to tell what happened without saying it a bunch of times. Sasheer's story about this starts with her on stage.

Sasheer Zamata

I got called the n-word once in my life, thankfully. And it happened in such a stereotypical way, you won't believe it. I was walking down the street in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Of course, it happened in Florida.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

And I was walking with another friend who's also a black woman. And this dirty pickup truck comes barreling down the road towards us. And it had a Confederate flag vanity plate.

And this very red-faced man-- that's the politically correct way to say it.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

A very red-faced man leans his face out the window. And he has these reflector sunglasses that strap to your head. And he yells at us. And he goes, "y'all niggas need to take yo' black asses back to Africa." And keeps going.

And I was like, were we punked? He had all the things.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

He had all the racist trappings. Like he did it on purpose. Like he went into a store and was like, "I need to look at as racist as I feel."

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

I've been telling a joke for a couple of years now. And it always gets a laugh. But when it happened, it was really scary. And it must have really shook me up because I did something I rarely do when I'm upset. I called my mom. And she actually found it funny.

[LAUGHTER]

Sasheer Zamata

You laughed at me. I was crying. And I called you from the car. And I was like, they called me a nigger. That's never happened to me. And you were like, please.

[LAUGHTER]

Ivory

Every day of the eighth grade I was a different flavor of nigger. Nigger all day long. Nigger on the bus. Nigger in the bathroom.

Sasheer Zamata

From kids?

Ivory

From the kids, yeah.

Sasheer Zamata

I was like 20 or 21. That was the first I ever heard that or, like, it's ever been used to me. It's at least nice that--

Ivory

It took that long.

Sasheer Zamata

--it took that long,

Ivory

But, yeah, it still doesn't feel good.

Sasheer Zamata

No, it does not feel good.

Up until that point, I hadn't really thought about the fact that my mom got called the n-word all the time when she was younger. But my mom would often drop little tidbits of information like that. And like most kids, I ignored them because she's my mom. And her life before being my mom didn't really concern me. But I did notice some of her patterns when I was a kid.

Sasheer Zamata

There are little things that I remember from my childhood. Like I remember she does not love white people. I mean, I'm sure she'd like you guys if she met you.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

You guys are fine. But it would come out in little ways. It wouldn't be crazy overt, but I remember little instances happening when I was younger. Like there was one time we were in the car. She was driving, and I was in the passenger seat.

And she stopped to let this old, white couple to pass in front of her. And she lets out this deep sigh like, ehh, white people. And I was like, uhh. They're not even talking to us right now. What's the issue? And she goes, memories. And that's where the conversation stopped.

The conversation stopped there because she never went into those memories. And I also never asked about them. I just assumed that my mom said things like that because she was old-school or close-minded. But I'm getting older. And I'm thinking about race more. I'm talking about it more in my act. And I thought, I should talk to my mom about this stuff. Why does she hate white people?

Until a few months ago, I knew very little about what she went through. I knew that in the '60s, my mom became one of the first black students to integrate a white junior high school in Forrest City, Arkansas. It was a big deal. She was part of history. And that's something I figured she'd be proud of.

Ivory

No, I didn't feel like it was a good thing. We never had a choice in the matter.

Sasheer Zamata

When she says "we," she means her and her siblings. It was her mom who had the choice. I didn't know it was an option for families, that they got to choose whether they'd desegregate schools. I just thought some law was passed, and everyone agreed to go for it. But my grandmother basically forced my mom and several of her siblings to join the civil rights movement as pre-teens and go to a school where they weren't wanted.

Ivory

She had said that the reason that she wanted her kids to go to the white school was that she did not want her children to be afraid of white people. But I'm thinking, that's your problem. You're afraid of white people. We didn't get the opportunity to develop how we thought about it.

Sasheer Zamata

Did you ever talk to your mom about stuff she went through? Do you know what she went through as a black woman in the South growing up?

Ivory

She was very close-mouthed. So no, she wouldn't talk about it.

Sasheer Zamata

Did you ever ask?

Ivory

Yes. And you get told it ain't your business.

Sasheer Zamata

It ain't your business?

Ivory

It ain't your business. I quote, "it ain't your business."

Sasheer Zamata

Seems like not talking about this particular subject is a tradition in our family. When I asked my mom why she never talked to me about this, she said she didn't want me to inherit her feelings about white people and she wanted me to come to my own conclusions. But the more questions I asked, especially about school, the more I felt like she didn't want to talk about it because it's still really painful to her.

Sasheer Zamata

So then you were just thrust into this all-white environment?

Ivory

Yes.

Sasheer Zamata

What was your first day like? Do you remember?

Ivory

We get lots of instructions. Do not argue with them. Do not antagonize them. Hold your tongue.

There was a lot of cussing at us while we were sitting on the bus. And Mama had told us, sit in the front of the bus so in case something happens, the bus driver is a witness. Well, he was just a witness to us getting cussed out every day. He did nothing.

When we get off the bus, we stood outside the window of the office so if anything happened, then they could witness something happening to us. The person I remember standing in the window was Coach Collier, who later became the principal. So he witnessed the kids throwing rocks at us.

I remember I had on a white blouse, a houndstooth vest, and a black skirt, and had my cute little white bobby socks. And I remember looking down at my legs and how the rocks had pelted them. And one had broke blood.

And some kid, I guess he pulled out a banana. He threw a banana. And it landed on my houndstooth vest. And I never got that stain out.

Sasheer Zamata

Being in junior high, no matter who you are, it's hard. It just sucks. People are mean.

And so I started asking her questions about this. Like, what was it like? And my mom said, think of it like Mean Girls, but they're racist. And I was like, no.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Like that's the analogy where I fully understood. I was like, oh, my god.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

That's too mean.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Sasheer Zamata

Did you make any friends?

Ivory

When I was in eighth grade, we sat in alphabetical order. And so the girl in front of me, her last name started with S also. So she was new to the school, too. So we were both new. And so--

Sasheer Zamata

This was a white girl?

Ivory

She was a white girl. I was the only black in the class. She became my friend. And she was real smart. And I was real smart. But I guess we were too friendly.

There was a class for kids that were extremely smart. But I didn't think she was any smarter than I was. But they pulled her out and put her in that class. And I will always believe they did that because we were too close. You could just see their face change if another white person came into the room or down the hall. It's like, they turned their head like, who's watching me talk to this black person?

Sasheer Zamata

When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, I got a pretty truncated version of it. I remember learning about the Little Rock Nine. And I saw that famous picture of them entering Central High School surrounded by US soldiers. And then desegregation happened. And now we get to use the same bathrooms. That's pretty much all I got.

I didn't know about what those kids went through on a day-to-day basis. But my mother, on the other hand, did. The school she eventually went to was just a little over an hour away from Little Rock. And she was paying very close attention to what was going on there.

Ivory

In Little Rock, the Little Rock Nine, when they integrated Central High School, nine black kids. And they had a lady named Daisy somebody.

Sasheer Zamata

That's Daisy Bates, the head of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP at the time.

Ivory

She would walk these kids to school every day. She would listen to them. And I mean, this is stuff I read in the newspaper, how she was sympathetic to what they were going through. And all day long, people were calling them the nigger. Or the teacher calling the nigger. Or the kids calling them niggers.

In Ebony magazine, we would read this how sympathetic she was to them. And they had somebody to talk to. We didn't get that.

Sasheer Zamata

To be clear, the Little Rock Nine were as viciously persecuted as any black students at the time. They were spat on, verbally and physically abused, attacked with fire and acid. But my mom still envied them because in her mind, those kids had access to the one thing that would have made her own situation more bearable. They had the ear of a caring adult.

Sasheer Zamata

What was your relationship with your mom like?

Ivory

She had lots of kids. She had seven kids. She always made me feel like I was the runt of the litter.

I was dark. I had really tight, kinky hair. I wasn't high-yellow like a couple of my sisters. I did not have long hair like a couple of my sisters. So I was black. I was chunky, dunky, dusty.

Sasheer Zamata

She favored the lighter kids or wanted you guys to have--

Ivory

She treated them differently.

Sasheer Zamata

What her mother was teaching her was the same thing her country was teaching her, that her blackness was less valuable.

Ivory

If she's buying cute little dresses for all of her daughters, I shouldn't be the one that didn't get the dress and have to wait till my fat sister outgrew it and then I get it. I shouldn't be the one that when it's time to comb hair, make their hair look cute. And then when she gets to me and she's tired, she just throws a few plaits on my head and they're going every which a'way. I started combing my own hair when I was like sixth grade because I knew she was not go put herself out to make me look good. So I had to figure it out myself.

Sasheer Zamata

Of all the stuff we talked about, this is the part that made me the most sad. She feels the way she does about white people because white people were so terrible to her. And I get that. But there's something else going on. She's mad at her mom for putting her in that situation, forcing her to go to a place where white people could treat her that way.

Where I went to school, where I live, the job I have-- all those things are a direct result of desegregation. My life would have been totally different otherwise. And listening back to the recording of our conversation, I couldn't believe how many times I asked her if she was proud of her contribution.

Sasheer Zamata

Do you look at that time and think about how you've helped change things in America? Do you see it as a--

Ivory

No. No.

Sasheer Zamata

Do you feel like you affected future generations?

Ivory

No. It was going to happen anyway. It's just that we get tortured in the process.

Sasheer Zamata

So you just would have rather not have been a part of it.

Ivory

Correct. It was all very unfortunate.

Sasheer Zamata

Well-- I don't know. I mean, I'm-- it's not all very unfortunate. It's actually very fortunate, like a lot has changed. I--

Ivory

Yeah, a lot has changed. But for that small group of people who went through this process, we got caught in the crossfire.

Sasheer Zamata

So if you could go back in time, you wouldn't even do it?

Ivory

No.

Sasheer Zamata

It would be so easy for my mom to just say yes, even one time. People who weren't even in the civil rights movement claim that they were a part of the civil rights movement. I get that this was a hard period in her life. But I figured she could at least see how it benefited me.

I went to school with all sorts of kids. And kids did give me trouble. But it wasn't the white kids.

Sasheer Zamata

There was like a field day or something outside. And I was in the circle of white girls. And then I went over to the circle of black girls. And this one girl turned around, boxed me out of the circle, and was like, "why don't you go back and play with your little white friends?"

And I cried instantly. I went to the curb by myself, just cried. And my white girlfriends came over. And they were like, what's wrong? And I was like, get away from me.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

This is your fault. And then my black girlfriends came over. And they're like, what's wrong? And I was like, Star made me cry. And I explained the whole thing. And then they were like, she has no right to say that. You can hang out with whoever you want.

That was the first time I encountered a thing where someone was like, you can't hang out with a certain group of people, even if it's your own group of people. But, yeah, there was always that separation but not the way my mom had experienced.

My mom even asked me one day. She was like, are you afraid of black people because I primarily had a lot of white friends. Which really screwed me up because my mom's black. And I was definitely afraid of her.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Sasheer Zamata

One time you asked me if I was scared of black people. Do you remember that?

Ivory

Uh-uh.

Sasheer Zamata

I don't know when it was or why. I mean, I'm assuming I was in middle school or elementary school or something. But yeah, you said-- you asked, "are you afraid of black people?" And I--

Ivory

What did you say?

Sasheer Zamata

I said, no. But I think-- I assumed that question came because I mostly had white friends. And I was like, does she think I don't want to hang around black people? Kind of gave me a little complex.

[LAUGHTER]

I felt a little paranoid that I had so many white friends, like it was a bad thing. Not just because of you. You weren't the only person to do that. But I wasn't expecting someone in my household to also do what the bullies at my school were doing.

Ivory

It's not like I was-- did I say it more than once?

Sasheer Zamata

No, but once is really all you need to do it. I know you didn't mean to hurt me or make me feel bad, but that's what happened.

Ivory

Mhm.

Sasheer Zamata

There's a lot of stuff that parents say that--

Ivory

Yeah, it's--

Sasheer Zamata

--they don't realize is going to affect their kids like that.

Ivory

Tell me about it. I get-- mm.

Sasheer Zamata

Do you have an example? You don't have to get into it i you don't want to.

Ivory

No.

Sasheer Zamata

How do you feel about me asking you these questions?

Ivory

I'm glad you open to it because I didn't get this with my mother. And I'm glad you're curious about me. But my mother wouldn't let me be curious about her.

Sasheer Zamata

My mom and I have never had the closest relationship. She and my dad split up when I was nine. And at some point, I started to focus a lot of my anger over their divorce onto her. She was always very strict with me. So we fought a lot.

Eventually, I went away to college and the tension eased up a bit. But that's mostly because we talked less. Now that I've gotten older and sat through my fair share of therapy, I've been trying to let some of that resentment go. And I'm trying to think of my mother more as a whole person.

[LAUGHTER]

Ivory

I am a person.

Sasheer Zamata

I know. But for a long time, I didn't think so.

[LAUGHTER]

Ivory

Oh.

Sasheer Zamata

How do you feel about our relationship?

Ivory

I don't know. We don't really get to spend very much time. Since you've moved to New York, we don't have any deep conversations anymore. So I'm not sure how I feel about it because I can't get my hands on you.

Sasheer Zamata

I don't remember us having too many deep conversations.

Ivory

Well, teenagers, they don't.

Sasheer Zamata

Well, they can.

Ivory

You know, like most single parents, I had a lot on my table, trying to maintain a job, trying to raise kids, dealing with legal drama with my ex. My plate was full. And you're doing all this stuff at school. And you're getting your good grades. And you had your own thing going.

Sasheer Zamata

Yeah, I did.

Ivory

Mhm.

Sasheer Zamata

But I do feel like I like, I guess, felt a separation or felt like, I guess, resentment for you having your own thing and me having my own thing.

Ivory

Oh, that's a teenager thing.

Sasheer Zamata

I don't know if it is.

Ivory

Well, I remember when I was a teenager, and I was most of the time mad at my mother.

Sasheer Zamata

But you stayed mad at your mother for the rest of her life. Do you see any parallels between your relationship with your mom and our relationship?

Ivory

Not at all.

Sasheer Zamata

Even though we still don't agree on most things, at least we're talking. That's new. I like it.

Ivory

Did I ever tell you I dated a white guy?

Sasheer Zamata

No, you did not.

[LAUGHTER]

What? When was this?

Ivory

After I got out of college, I was living in Little Rock. And I was dating this white guy.

Sasheer Zamata

What'd he look like? Was he tall?

Ivory

No, he was not.

Sasheer Zamata

Really?

Ivory

He was just-- just a good Jewish boy.

Sasheer Zamata

Jewish?

[LAUGHTER]

Ivory

Yeah.

Sasheer Zamata

Whoa. You dated a short Jew?

Ivory

Yes, I did.

[LAUGHTER]

Sasheer Zamata

Wow. That-- I did not expect that at all. I just assumed-- because Papa's 6'5", so I was like, I just assumed you liked tall guys. That's cool. I have a lot of short, Jewish friends.

She told me that they dated for three months, and then she dumped him because of her mom. Her uncle saw her out one night with him.

Ivory

And he said, "you dating a white man? I'm going to call your mama and tell her what you doing up here." So when we got home that night, I was done with him.

Sasheer Zamata

Wow.

Ivory

I was just not that into him to think that this was worthy of a conversation I wanted to have with my mother.

Sasheer Zamata

I get that. It's never easy to figure out what conversations to have with your mother.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Sasheer Zamata, you can see her on television on Saturday Night Live.

Coming up, I use my platform as a radio show host to ask a question I have been wanting to ask for years-- from WBEZ Chicago, when our program continues.

Act Three. Middle Age.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt sitting in for Ira Glass. Our show today is about things that make more sense when you're older. We've arrived at middle age, when a person begins to wonder, will this make sense when I'm older? Any of it? The choices I'm making, the work I'm doing, the place I live, how I'm spending my time, and how I'm not spending my time. That's one I think about a lot.

There's a letter in my desk at work. It's a little over the top, but it gets its point across. My four-year-old wrote it with the assistance of his babysitter. It reads, "Dear mommy, I don't want you to go away again. Love, Jacob."

So am I doing this right, making the right choices? And I'm going to regret these choices in 20 years in my 50s? I think a sort of classic way people try to answer this question is to find someone in their 50s who's living it and ask them. I've got one right nearby, same line of work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

How does it feel to be on that side of the mic?

Ira Glass

Awful.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Does it really?

Ira Glass

Feels fine.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Ira agreed to talk to me before he got on a plane last week. So here we are. Act Three: Middle Age. And we're talking about the choices Ira's made. Ira describes his 30s this way.

Ira Glass

Every moment, I was either working or asleep. Like those were the two things I did and didn't have a problem with it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I have noticed recently that you do do some things that are not just working.

Ira Glass

Yes, that's definitely true.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I remember you told me when you were hanging out with someone-- or you were going out to dinner and you said something like, yeah, I've started to try this new thing called friends recently.

Ira Glass

(LAUGHING) Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's really-- it's cool.

Ira Glass

It's amazing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, it's fun.

Ira Glass

Yeah, it's really fun.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But that was two years ago, Ira. What happened before then?

Ira Glass

I had friends who I wouldn't see that often, people I liked, but we wouldn't see each other, you know?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah. I mean, the fact is I definitely do schedule all kinds of things now that I never would have five years ago, or 10 years ago, like during the week at night at 7 o'clock or 8 o'clock. And then I go do them. And--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why did you start doing that?

Ira Glass

For fun.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why?

Ira Glass

My own amusement. I'm normal in that way. I wanted to see people. There's people I like. I wanted to see them.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is that a thing that you wish you had done earlier?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It is?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Like I wish I'd created more space for myself and I wasn't working all the time, for sure. But I don't want it enough that I'd do anything about it. You know what I mean? So then, really, how much do I want it? I want it when I see it. I think that seems good. But then in practice-- what's the thing-- what are the questions that you're asking yourself that are leading to this?

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm not asking these questions all the time, but fairly regularly there is a moment where I step back. And I'm like I don't know if in 20 years or 30 years I'm going to be like that's what I should have been doing when I was in my 30s, when my kids were little, when my parents were still alive.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, I guess it's not just moments. I have it a lot. I have it a lot. Those don't seem to be questions for you. It seems like-- I don't know. I didn't know you when you were in your 30s. But right now, it seems like you are very singularly directed. And you don't have the anxiety of all the other questions.

Ira Glass

I don't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you ever have that?

Ira Glass

I mean, you're in a different situation because you have kids, you know?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But you're wondering, was I plagued by doubt? And I wasn't. You think about this all the time. And I never think about this. And I never really did think about this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. I can't imagine deciding the only thing I want to do is work and sleep. I totally can't imagine that. No, I would miss things.

Ira Glass

See, when you say this, this is-- this gives me this feeling of like, oh, wait. I'm more of a weirdo than I thought in this way which I don't usually think of myself at all. But I still am glad for the choice I made.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I feel like what I am getting from all of this is that you and I have many things in common. And we are extremely different human beings.

Ira Glass

And that makes me actually the very worst person to ask this advice from. I'm too different from you to give you any advice. I mean, the thing that's different for you is a desire for free time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Which you don't have. You didn't have.

Ira Glass

(LAUGHING) No. No, I didn't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Ira Glass is the host of this show, just not this week.

Act Four. Old Age.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act Four: Old Age. So we begin when you're little. And there are things you do not know. You can't understand. And then you grow up, and you get it.

We fall in love. This is love. Or someone tells you what "hooker" means. I remember that vividly. Stuff eventually makes sense.

This last story, it's about what happens after that, long after that. It's about a man named Carl Duzen. Carl was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a year and a half ago at age 79. So after decades of adulthood, it is suddenly appropriate for a 40-year-old doctor to ask him questions like, can you tell me who the president is? Or, do you remember your name?

When Carl goes to the doctor, he always goes with his wife Susan. He always hates going. And he always knows his name.

Carl Duzen

So one of the questions that you should always ask, make a picture, basically, of a clock at such and such a time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It says in words "draw a clock"?

Susan

Yes, the round face.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I see.

Susan

Could you draw an analog clock with the time 11:20?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Susan, Carl's wife, tells me one day recently, she drove Carl to his appointment. Carl went in. And Carl tells me he waited there, pencil in hand, the tester waiting next to him, asking him, "draw a clock."

Carl Duzen

So I got a piece of paper. No matter what I-- I just-- I couldn't-- I couldn't do it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl tried again. He looked up at the tester, back down toward his page. Tester, his pencil.

Carl Duzen

So, look at that and yeah, I can't do it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He can't do it. Carl got a graduate degree in physics. He studied motion, electromagnetism. He spent a lot of his life deep in the study of space and time of numbers. He taught physics and mathematics for years. So this particular failing was unnerving.

Carl Duzen

Why is this so difficult? Why is that so hard? It's clocks. Why is that so hard?

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Carl talks, his wife Susan is completely still, listening, hanging on the details so she doesn't miss anything, jumping in with words when they're needed. She's a full head taller than Carl. Their favorite joke, as Susan says, I almost overlooked him. And then he jumps in the air so she can see his face.

When Carl says things lately that don't have much basis in reality, Susan respectfully raises two questioning eyebrows, leaves it at that. As he's describing the trouble of the clock, Susan assures Carl he's not alone. The clock thing comes up in her support group for spouses of people with dementia.

Susan

In the support group, people would talk about how, oh, my husband has an appointment next week with the doctor. So he's been busy practicing the clock. Oh, yeah, the clock. Oh, my husband never gets it.

Carl Duzen

Well, because it's so universal. There it is.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Carl Duzen

It's the time. And now suddenly, you can't manage it. Ack.

And so, I just said, OK. So what I did is got a piece of paper. I just sat down. Where is it? Let's--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you want me to follow you?

Carl Duzen

No, I'll bring it. I'll bring it back.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl starts looking around for something. Goes in the kitchen. He seems to be lost. And then goes upstairs. Eventually, he comes down with a wooden box. Inside, it's felted with drafting tools.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What do you have there?

Carl Duzen

So, I got a piece of paper. I got out the tool that I have for doing this kind of work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So that's like a compass? It looks like the sort of compass I used in math in elementary school.

Carl Duzen

Yeah. Yeah. So I thought, OK, I'm going to-- I sat down with it for just about an hour.

Chana Joffe-Walt

To be clear, not necessarily to draw a clock, but to figure out why he couldn't draw a clock.

Carl Duzen

And I finally realized that the problem is superposition of three--

Susan

Types.

Carl Duzen

--types.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl has drawn a very precise circle, split it into twelfths, and scrawled the words "superposition of three types" in tiny letters in the corner of the page. He explains, with Susan's help, there are three layers of information here. There's the hours that are represented from 1 through 12, even though there are 24 hours in a day.

Susan

But then, there's the second layer, which is the minutes. And a 1 represents not a 1 anymore, but 5 minutes. And a 2 represents 10.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But Carl adds, after that layer is the second hand, which is now measuring 1 through 60 seconds.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Superposition of three types.

Carl Duzen

Types because you have three different elevations that you have to get together to make the information.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl sat with his tools and his paper and his physicist's desire to decompose the problem before him. And he took apart each element of the clock until it made sense to him, the three layers, the fact that the eye goes to the larger minute hand first and your brain has to override that to focus on the smaller hour hand, which is actually more important even though it's smaller and not the first thing you see.

And then you're supposed to move to the longer minute hand. But don't be tricked because the second hand is also longer but it's skinnier. And by the end of all this, I just feel like, what the hell, clock? I can't believe this is the system we have for telling time. It's insane. It's a miracle anyone can ever just glance at their wrist and capture information, something Carl works very hard at.

Carl Duzen

So and the brain-- the brain is in there trying desperately, of course, to get hold all of these things at the same time to respond to. And it's just dead hard. And then when I did this I figured, oh, that's why it's so hard.

Susan

Your brain can't help you draw a clock, but you used your brain to figure out why your brain can't help you draw a clock.

Carl Duzen

Yeah, that's kind of the way it is. I felt like that I got something back that I had lost. But not that I could do it easily for a while, but that I at least understood why I have was having trouble.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And that felt like--

Carl Duzen

And that had-- it had meaning. And it had the structure.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Instead of just feeling like this is a random thing that I now suddenly can't do.

Carl Duzen

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Huh.

Carl Duzen

And it isn't easy. It is difficult. And so I felt better about myself. Got perky. More perky.

[LAUGHTER]

Chana Joffe-Walt

A dementia diagnosis is being told you are now no longer going to understand things as you get older. For the first time in your life, the chronological forward march of knowledge will begin to reverse itself. But Carl is understanding things he never knew before. And this is the case with lots of people with dementia.

Through meeting Carl and other people, I talked to a woman who forgot how to make coffee. And then she broke down the steps involved so she could do it again. A guy who re-learned to use his cell phone. That's something Carl has also done.

Carl knows way more about a clock than most of us only because he forgot how to draw one. You learn what you need to know when you need to know it. Carl tells me proudly now that he understands the superposition of three types, he can use that to read a watch again. Susan raises her eyebrows skeptically at this, but says nothing.

Carl Duzen

From the time that I was told that I had Alzheimer's to now, the things that I had let go of because kinds of things in physics that I used to teach I can't even tell you what it is. That's gone. For a while, I couldn't use my computer, remember how to use it. And now I can go with a clock--

Susan

Watch.

Carl Duzen

Watch.

Susan

Can you tell the time?

Carl Duzen

On this one, it's really tough. But here it is.

Susan

You want to look at mine?

Carl Duzen

[INAUDIBLE] OK, here's where it--

Susan

Here, Carl, look at mine.

Carl Duzen

OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl's wearing a watch, but it's small. And he doesn't seem to know how to deal with the fact that it's covered by part of his sleeve. Susan pulls out her gold watch, which has a much larger face.

Carl Duzen

OK. So you're looking around for information. You would go for this because that's the most important thing. It looks like it. It's the biggest one.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You're pointing to the second hand.

Carl Duzen

Yes. And then there's this little bitty one over here.

Susan

The short stubby one.

Carl Duzen

The short stubby one. It's the smallest little thing. It's that little piece, you see? And that's the hour one. That's the one, hour by hour, that does the whole thing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You have to think through each of those steps every time you look at a watch?

Carl Duzen

OK, so this is-- well, here we are with the little piece. And now we are at-- let's see-- 12, 1--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Carl stops talking and is staring intensely at the watch. Susan looks very nervous. We are all leaning in. Later, I will realize that here is where I stopped breathing. Carl spends a while on that hour hand and then starts counting by fives in a whisper around the face of the watch.

Carl Duzen

5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40. 1:40? Yeah. That's how I do it.

Susan

Yeah, that's fantastic.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What did that feel like?

[CLAPPING]

[LAUGHTER]

Carl Duzen

It's good. It's good.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you worry-- so now you have this level of analysis that helps how know how to read a clock by thinking about what is involved in reading a clock, do you worry that you're going to forget this?

Carl Duzen

Sure. That's why I have to do this. There's no path back.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There's no path back to a day when you used to be able to draw a clock using-- without having to think about it.

Carl Duzen

There's no path back.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There are a lot of things that make sense when you're older, as in a grown-up. And then there are things that make sense when you're actually getting old, when you start to make sense of losing things. That is what I'm sure most of us cannot fully grasp until we get there ourselves, to know-- to really know-- there is no path back.

Credits.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Our program was produced today by Zoe Chace with Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder is our editorial consultant. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from [INAUDIBLE] Smith. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our business operations manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator. Research help from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damian Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. And to my boss, Ira Glass, who graciously let me sit in as host this week--

Ira Glass

Like, thanks for the hospitality.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Ira will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.