Transcript

603:

Once More, With Feeling
Transcript

Originally aired 12.02.2016

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/603

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey there, podcast and online listeners. There's some words that we have unbeeped in this internet version of the radio show. If you prefer a beeped version-- maybe you're listening with kids-- you can find that on our website. From WBEZ Chicago, it's "This American Life."

So Eleanor was just a kid, eight or nine, standing at a corner waiting to cross the street, minding her own business.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

And this guy like, hung out of the window of his car and yelled out, call me when you're legal. And it's just so weird. I mean, partially because I wasn't used to being a thing that you would want to have call you.

Ira Glass

You mean specifically because you were a child?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Yeah. Yeah. But also, because like what did he want there? What am I going to do in that scenario? Like, am I going to chase him? Am I going to actually give him my number so that he can call me in 11 years time when I am legal? Like, what's going to happen? What does he want there?

Ira Glass

So the guy drove off. Eleanor grew up. And as an adult, she saw how often women are cat called, and she decided to do an experiment where she'd stop and talk to the guys, treat it like the beginning of a conversation. Like, OK, you wanted to talk? Let's talk. Ask some questions.

She took a recorder and a microphone. To increase the odds of getting catcalled, she ditched her normal clothes and her glasses for heels and lipstick. She lives in Australia, in Sydney, and she headed to an area called Kings Cross.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

And it's like a night life spot anywhere else in the world. You don't need to have seen King's Cross to know what it's like. You have one wherever you live. It's billboards and like, fluorescent lights, and guys just kind of like shouting at the moon, and girls in tiaras and sashes on that say "18 Today!" with an exclamation mark.

And I walked around, and whenever someone yelled out something, or catcalled, I would turn around, I would ask if I could start recording, and I would say, what did you just say, and what were you hoping to get from it?

And most of them were like, pretty happy to talk. A lot of them were like, either drunk or just stoked that a girl was chatting to them. But they were pretty forthcoming.

Ira Glass

OK. Let's hear some of the voices.

Catcaller

So a guy just looks for a reaction, a smile, you're a dickhead, hi.

Ira Glass

Just in case you're having trouble with the Australian accent, he's saying, "A guy just looks for a reaction, a smile, you're a dickhead, hi.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

A smile and you're a dickhead both equally good?

Catcaller

Both equally as good.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

So it's just attention?

Catcaller

No, no. It gives you a platform for you to start.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

How many successful relationships do you think have started from someone saying you're a dickhead?

Catcaller

Zero.

[LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

Describe this next guy.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

And so this is Sebastian, and he's a bouncer with a strip club. He's kind of huge and stocky. He's wearing a baseball cap. And he shouted something at me about looking French, and he made this gesture as I walked past as if he was like, grabbing air breasts.

Sebastian

[INAUDIBLE].

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Did you just make a gesture like breasts?

Sebastian

I like saying hello to women. I like being friendly to women.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

OK. So here's my thing, yeah?

Sebastian

They love it.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

So you think that they're like--

Sebastian

They have to.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Why?

Sebastian

It's a nice thing when a man says hello.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

And one thing that started to emerge in every single one of these conversations was they think that women enjoy it. So whatever the first reason they gave for catcalling, almost immediately, the follow-up would be, and I want women to have a good time. I'm trying to make you feel good. I'm trying to give you a compliment, or make you feel confident. Women enjoy this, and that's part of why I do it. And that was astounding to me.

Ira Glass

So tell me about these guys.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

This is Zac and Mike. Zac and Mike shouted at me as I was walking across an alleyway.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Do you want her to have fun, or are you just doing it for you?

Zac

Oh, you know, I want her to get enjoyment out of what I yell at her. I don't want her to be-- in no way I want her to be offended, or feel in any way insecure about anything I say. It's always-- like, I'm never going to say anything rude or abusive. It's always for the good of the night.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

OK. So it matters to you that she had fun?

Zac

Yeah. 100%.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

OK. And do you like-- do you count yourself as a good guy?

Zac

Fucking oath, the best.

Eleantor Gordon-smith

Fucking oath is Australian speak for like, hell yeah. These guys didn't seem like sexist nut jobs. That didn't seem unreasonable. They weren't hard to talk to. And it occurred to me they've just like, made a mistake. They just got some kind of central fact about women wrong, and they think that we really enjoy this.

And surely, I can stand in front of these reasonable, caring dudes and just say women don't like it. And that might be a way of talking them out of doing it ever.

Act One. Hollaback Girl.

Ira Glass

Eleanor, by the way, is in her 20s, and she spent 14 years in school as an unapologetic debate nerd, on debate teams, flying to Paris, and Doha, and Seoul, and Berlin to compete. As part of the national Australian debate team, she wore a blue Blazer with the Australian crest, so she is somebody who believes in her ability to persuade.

And when she walked up to guys in the street with her recorder, she really did try to change the way they saw what they were doing. She really did try to convince them to change course and never catcall again. And that's when things got really interesting.

Today's program is all about people who believe in the power of a course correction, that they can get others to change course, or that they can get themselves to change course. And then, things will be fixed. The world will be a better place. They will be better people.

We have three stories, one about a US Marine, one about a robot, and we have Eleanor in King's Cross, who is Act One. Which is where we are now. And I think the best way to illustrate what her conversations were like-- because they are really interesting-- is to play you excerpts of just one of them at length.

And the one we're going to do is the conversation she had with Zac. Zac is the guy who was out with his friend Mike and said to her--

Zac

Like, I'm never going to say anything rude or abusive. It's always for the good of the night.

Ira Glass

Eleanor said Zac was a good listener. He seemed like a nice guy. And so this is how one of those conversations goes when it goes the best. Here's Eleanor.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

I talked to Zac and Mike in a dingy alley, which sounds scarier than it was, because it's hard to be scared of Zac and Mike. Zac's this big, friendly-looking overgrown teddybear of a man with huge brown eyes, and Mike's tiny and wiry. They look kind of like Yogi and Boo-Boo turned human. As I was walking past, Zac yells out, "Hey, luscious lips."

Zac

I was complimenting you on your red lips, how they look nice, and it would be amazing to kiss a complete stranger that worked for a radio station.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

When Zac does this kind of stuff, it's like he's putting on our show. He's flirty. He's show-offy. His whole mission in life is to bring the party.

Zac

If you've ever watched a documentary where you've got like, a bird, like an amazing bird, like the birds of paradise, they do the most extravagant dances, just amazing, just to flaunt themselves. I believe-- I know for a fact that saying crazy shit to girls, like the same sort of shit that I said that brought you to me right now, is the exact sort of same. It's kind of like being colorful with your words.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

To be clear, I liked Zac, even when he told me this.

Zac

I've done rude things, like I've run along to groups of girls on the street, and like, complete random, and smacked one of their asses, like one out of about 10 . And all the rest are like, fixated on, oh, my god, why was her ass slapped? And it's enjoyable.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

But it's only enjoyable, he says, if the woman's part of a group. He knows there's a line you don't cross. He's just drawn it in a weird place.

Zac

Yes, if you single out a girl and slap their ass, it can be a little bit creepy. But I wouldn't do that. I only slapped one ass of one group. I'm a one ass, one group guy. OK?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Would you have slapped my ass if I'd been closer to you?

Zac

If you were in a group, yes. If you're on your own, no, I wouldn't.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Why not if I was on my own?

Zac

It kind of takes away the fun of it. The fun of it is your ass-- it's not saying your ass is not hot, but your ass is the hottest of the group. Therefore, I've slapped it.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Did anybody hit you, or yell at you, or tell you not to do that?

Zac

No. No, no, no. I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm complimenting a girl's ass in public.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

You think that smacking a girl's ass in public isn't doing anything wrong?

Zac

No.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

You can hear it, right? He sounds sincere. He wants to believe, or he really does, believe that this stuff is harmless, just a street show or a fun game for everyone to share.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Would it matter to you if what you did actually make girls feel really terrible? If I could convince you that at least some of us were made to feel small and frightened by guys who smack our asses on the street or give us compliments without asking, does that matter to you?

Zac

Yeah, definitely. Fucking oath. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable or anything about my presence.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

OK. So here's a thought that I think maybe hasn't occurred to you. There's quite a lot of violence against women, right? Like, we understand that. One of the things that happens when you feel afraid as a chick, and you're just walking around and a guy slaps your ass, is you don't know if he intends it as a compliment or if he's actually really violent.

And so something that we do, something that we've learned to do, is to not reject men. One of the strategies we adopt is laugh, smile, be collegiate, be appeasing, be non-confrontational. Right? So I want to suggest to you that it's possible that a lot of the smiles and laughs that you see on the faces of the women who you slap or compliment are ways for them to get out of the situation rather than ways of thanking you.

Zac

Well, I actually kind of feel a little bit bad now. Yeah, no, I do. Because I understand that. I understand that. That an ass slap cannot just be taken as a compliment.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Zac seemed to get that. But then Mike explained that what I'd said didn't implicate them.

Mike

Honestly, like, just because you feel that, and just because it's in the headlines, it does not mean that all chicks, all girls, have that same feeling. , Like every girl has a different level of sensitivity, and I'm feeling from you that your level of sensitivity is way higher, and there's a reason for why that is. And that's because of your upbringing or something in your past has brought you to feel this way.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

In the end, they just weren't buying it. They kept coming back at me with variations on the same theme. Not all girls feel like you do, and we don't mean any harm. I just couldn't talk them out of it.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Are you still going to yell at women on the street after talking to me?

Zac

Yes. I'm going to. Yes. Because--

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Even though it makes us feel bad.

Zac

But you can't speak for every girl.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

No, I can't. But I think it makes a reasonable proportion of us feel bad, and I think you taking the risk of frightening someone who something bad has happened to is an unkind thing to do.

Zac

Well, I'm sorry for being unkind, but I'm just another paradise bird flaunting my shit.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

But you don't think that you can try and be better?

Zac

A better paradise bird?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

A better person?

It's true that I can't speak for other women, but I can speak to them. So just for the record, I went to check if I am the only one who feels this way. I talked to girls who are out, like out out, girls in sashes and tiaras and girls smoking outside clubs. And I asked them what they thought about catcalling.

Girl 1

I hate it so much. It makes me feel so uncomfortable, pissed off, and scared. Shitty, but also super scared.

Girl 2

Just the idea that someone is so much bigger than me and could so easily do something to me. I feel cheap. I feel like I need to change my clothing, like I shouldn't have worn a dress today. I've never met like, a single person who enjoys it. Not even really drunk women like it, I don't think. I've never ever, ever met a girl that enjoyed it, ever.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

There was one woman who kind of enjoyed it. She was young and peppered with freckles, and just chilled out about everything.

Girl 3

He complimented my butt, and I don't like my butt, so I was like, cool.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

By now, I was going kind of mad that I hadn't talked Zac out of cat-calling. I hate losing arguments. But more than that, I hate losing arguments for reasons I don't quite understand. And I still didn't understand Zac at all. Did he seriously just need evidence that more women felt like I did?

I decided to try persuading him a second time, only this time, I'd be armed with numbers. We met up again at 5 o'clock on a Wednesday, on the exact same spot where he yelled at me. On the night we'd met, there'd been vomit on the sidewalk, but by the middle of the week, it was just milk crates and cigarette butts.

It took us a minute to recognize each other, but when we did, we sat side by side in the gutter and talked for an hour, conspicuously not touching elbows.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

All right. Let's talk about this slapping women on the ass thing.

Zac

All right. [LAUGHING] Let's talk about it. You're sold on it. It's such a killer. It so works. You've just asked a question about a point--

Eleanor Gordon-smith

But you told me it doesn't work. You told me that I'm the first woman who's ever spoken to you after doing any of this stuff.

Zac

Yeah, that's true. That's true. I was just being a smart ass. I'll just tell you like, other times it's happened. In Newtown once, it was Australia Day two years ago, I was with the same mate. And there was this group of like, English girls. I could hear their accent.

And I was like, fuck, fuck this. I'm going to fucking start with their asses. There's like, 10 of them. And I walked up in the middle of them, slapped one of the asses in the middle. Kind of like pushed my way through, and I just like started to impersonate them all.

And they loved it. We ended up going to a pub and having drinks with them. But it didn't lead to anything more than that. But they like, thought that was cool. They were like, fucking, that's arrest worthy. You could get arrested for what you just did, but you did it. So fucking kudos to you. Come have a drink.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

The story that you just told me sounds like there was a group of women who were out by themselves, enjoying themselves. You ran into the middle of the group, you hit one of them without asking or speaking to her.

[LAUGHING]

That's not funny to me, man. What I'm trying to explain to you is that it's not just me who feels frightened at this stuff. And it's not just me who doesn't find it fun. I have some stats too. Hang on. So a survey found that 67% of women think that an interaction in the street, like a catcall or a slap, is going to escalate.

Zac

It's going to escalate to what?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

To a physical attack.

Zac

Something bad?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Yeah.

Zac

Oh, really? Fuck, that's bad.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

2/3 of women think that it's going to get worse.

Zac

That's really bad.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

85% feel angry, 78% feel annoyed, 80% feel nervous, and 72% feel disgusted. It's not just me, man. Most of us hate it.

Zac

Well, stats are stats, aren't they? Far out. I've never actually-- I've never heard any stats from it. I've just gone off face value from the situation. So, yeah, if you're asking me if I feel bad about what I've done, yeah, I feel bad if I've made anyone feel anything than like, kind of complimented. Yes, definitely.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Those odds suggest to me that you probably have made people feel angry and frightened.

Zac

I don't think I have. I honestly don't think I have, because I've seen the reaction. I'm not grabbing a chick's ass whatsoever. It's like a slap, it's like a tap. You know what I mean? A grab, I think that's a bit fucking weird. A dude going and grabbing a girl's arse, that's fucking wrong.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

What makes it wrong to grab a girl's ass?

Zac

Because you're like, you're fucking feeling their flesh and their body, and it's like, you could make them feel really uncomfortable. Like any--

Eleanor Gordon-smith

OK, but the things that make it wrong to grab someone, I'm telling you that's the same for slapping them.

Zac

But you can't speak for every girl, you know? You don't know--

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Yes, we're back on this point. He was not budging on this. He came back to it over and over. He seemed to have this whole imagined world of women who were into this, and he wasn't ready to let it go.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

What is it that you're thinking that makes you so reluctant to give it up?

Zac

'Cause I try and put myself in their position, and I try and imagine what it would be like to just be walking and have some compliment thrown at me by whoever. I would get some type of compliment out of it. If they'd had enough balls, or had enough beers, or fucking whatever to be able to yell something out, I'd be like, yeah, fucking whatever. Yeah, that's the way I try and like, look at things. How would I feel?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

So how would you feel if someone did what you do and slapped you on the ass without warning and without asking?

Zac

I would feel a little bit special. If I was with a group of mates, I'd be like, ha, that's right. I've got a better ass than all you cunts.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

He just thinks it's nice to be noticed. Not intimidating, not scary. Just nice.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Can I tell you I found this stuff really depressing?

Zac

Depressing?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Yeah.

Zac

Why?

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Because I feel like I've been walking around for days now believing that people want to be nice, and believing that it comes from a good place, and believing that guys are just trying to have fun and compliment people. But it's real, real hard for me to keep believing that when I tell people how angry it makes us, I tell people how sad it makes us, I tell people about sexual violence statistics, and the reaction isn't "that matters to me, and I'm going to stop." The reaction is, "That doesn't matter to me."

And it makes me feel like I'm walking around begging people to take people like me seriously, and they're choosing their fun over how I feel. It makes me feel so small.

Zac

I know. That's fucked. That's fucked. Well, that's kind of just the selfishness of the world. People know how fucked up-- how bad of things have happened to people. But it's still not going to hinder the way that they are or anything like that. That's just like human selfishness.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

But I don't want to talk about humans and selfishness. I want to talk about you.

Zac

OK. [LAUGHING]

Eleanor Gordon-smith

You going to stop? 'Cause I'm not playing.

Zac

Yes. I'm not going to slap any more asses. Compliments when I feel they are appropriate, and they're not too suggestive in any way, they're very lighthearted, I think I'm still going to do.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

Can you shake my hand and promise me you won't slap any more asses?

Zac

Yes, I can shake your hand. I can shake your hand. I am not going to slap any more asses.

Eleanor Gordon-smith

After he left, I sat on the curb surrounded by fossilized bits of chewing gum and watched the traffic go by. This was the most success I had with any of the guys I talked to. It took 120 minutes of conversation with one man to get him to commit to not literally assaulting women.

Ira Glass

Eleanor Gordon Smith. She teaches ethics at the University of Sydney.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Act Two. The Real Decoy.

Ira Glass

Act Two, "The Real Decoy." So now we turn to the story of a man who had always had one way of doing things and talking to people. And then he did not need a stranger on the street to walk up to him with a microphone. He noticed this on his own, that the way he was dealing with people had stopped working the way it always had, and he made some adjustments. Stephanie Foo tells what happened.

Stephanie Foo

Michael Pitre was always the new kid growing up . He went to 10 schools in five states. But he generally did OK, because he's always been good at telling stories. Even now, he's got a solid arsenal.

Michael Pitre

Do you want to hear Fred the Scorpion? That's another one of the greatest hits.

Stephanie Foo

I--

Michael Pitre

Do you want to hear something else? Want to hear another funny one?

Stephanie Foo

I actually-- I'm running out of time a little bit.

Mike is like this wherever he is-- at home, at work. In 2006 and 2007, Mike served two tours in Iraq, and he had a rep there as the storyteller, the funny guy. Joslyn Hemler was in the Marine Corps with them, and I asked her about turnover briefs.

Mike ran all the operations for his battalion overnight, and in the morning had to give a briefing of the events of the past 12 hours.

Joslyn Hemler

Turnover briefs are one of those monotonous things we probably do. So very matter of fact, very military. But Mike, it somehow turned into like, a quasi like, soap opera of events. He'd be like, sitting in this rolling chair, he'd have one of those extended pointers. And he'd be like, let's go to the map. And he'd like, roll all the way across the watch floor. Like, he just gave such rich detail to the story.

A lot of times, he's looking for validation when he tells his stories, which are funny. He'll be like, that was funny, right?

Stephanie Foo

Mike came back stateside after his first deployment, and he was visiting his parents on New Year's Eve, as some kids were shooting fireworks.

Michael Pitre

I said, yeah, those fireworks look like airburst mortars. And my brother said, oh, did you see any airburst mortars? I mean, a question as innocuous as that.

Stephanie Foo

So Mike did what he'd always done. He started telling the first story that popped into his head on the subject.

Michael Pitre

And I started talking about-- there was this one day I was running on this large base where I was stationed, and a volley of airburst mortars came in. And where they went off, right underneath them was a Naval officer, and she took a piece of shrapnel right through her neck, right in front of me and these three other Marines.

And she is dying, she is bleeding to death, and she is scared. And it's me and these three Marines getting her into the back of a Humvee, and she's telling us what to tell her kids. And telling that to my family--

Stephanie Foo

What did their faces look like as you were saying it?

Michael Pitre

Just sort of shocked and horrified. And you don't ever want your family to look at you with shock and horror. That's not fun.

Stephanie Foo

Mike told his family, by the way, she wound up being OK. The officer survived. But that didn't lighten the mood. And he couldn't figure out how to save the moment. That was new and weird.

This happened a few more times when he was home between deployments. His best friend Brock asked him about IEDs. And he answered honestly. They never talked about IEDs again after that. Other friends on other nights at other bars asked about Iraqis or politics.

Michael Pitre

And so the first time your friends from back home ask you, you answer the question very, very honestly. And you realize that halfway through your answer, that you're making everyone very uncomfortable. And it's almost like the air between you starts to thicken. It's almost a physical feeling of people withdrawing from you.

What are they supposed to do? What are they supposed to say to you? They have nothing to say to you. And also, what are they thinking about me right now?

Stephanie Foo

What were you afraid that they were thinking about you?

Michael Pitre

That I was damaged. That I had nothing else to talk about. That I was a violent person. That I wasn't a normal person. And if you say I don't want to talk about it, then you're the truculent vet who is going to be sitting brooding in the corner, and that carries its own stigma.

Stephanie Foo

We think that it's like, oh, it's because you're so damaged.

Michael Pitre

Right. You have a shattered psyche. You must.

Stephanie Foo

But you're like, no, it's because I'm trying to protect your psyche.

Michael Pitre

I want to protect the conversation. I think what people hear sometimes is "I don't want to talk about it because it bothers me so much." And sometimes it's, "I don't want to talk about it because it's going to bother you, and you don't even know it."

Stephanie Foo

He learned to shut up about that stuff. Not that people stopped asking. Like he was out with friends, and someone asked him about mortars again. And even though, of course, the first story that popped into his head was about the officer who got shrapnel in her neck, it was like he went on to the next slide. Tried something different. And he blurted out--

Michael Pitre

Well, you know, you have to get a good poo on the mortar. They're like, oh, what, a poo on the mortar? It's like, yeah, the point of origin.

Stephanie Foo

Basically, they can trace where an enemy mortar's launched from. Its point of origin, POO.

Michael Pitre

So everyone just refers very casually to a mortar's POO. And then in the command center, there's like wall maps, where there's an officer in charge of marking every POO in-- no kidding-- a little brown marker.

And there was this place to the northeast of Fallujah. It's a bend in the river. Topographically, it looked like a scrotum. So everyone called it the ball sack. And that's the place where most of the mortars were launched. And so, you'd see your old friends on the base. And you'd say, what are you up to these days? And they go, oh, you know, I'm just POO hunting in the ball sac. Yeah, be careful. Ball sac's no joke.

Stephanie Foo

He was back, the funny guy. The guy people actually wanted to be around. And it was easy. Mike started getting better at using questions to pivot to funny military stories. Like when people asked about helicopters, he talked about how a friend's epic farts would stink up the whole bird.

Stephanie Foo

Did it feel like you were connecting with people?

Michael Pitre

Yes. It is euphoric. It was great for years. It felt great. There was an element of relief in having solved the problem.

Stephanie Foo

Yeah.

Michael Pitre

That's what an officer does. You're handed a problem. In the military, it's called a mission. You design the solution to it, and you execute it.

Stephanie Foo

It was around this time that Mike met Erin. She was a friend of his little sister's, and they'd started emailing each other during his first deployment. And he developed a huge crush, even though he'd never met her in person.

So now that he was home, he finally went out with her and a bunch of her friends. So they're out, and someone brought up the Iraqis. Said, are they even doing anything for themselves over there? This was such a cartoonish idea of the war, it annoyed Mike. And without thinking, he found himself telling a story to prove how seriously the Iraqi army took their jobs, a story where in order to find a terrorist, the Iraqi army rounded up all the men in a village, bound them, and put them on their knees with their heads against the wall. That's how seriously they took this.

He stopped talking and realized, crickets. He looked up at Erin. She was horrified. And he thought, oh god, oh god. I've got to tell a funny story now. So he launched into one of his classics, Fred the Scorpion, which goes like this.

Michael Pitre

So my first deployment, I was a platoon commander. And some of my Marines found a scorpion. And that's a big deal. You can feed it vermin. You can fight it against other scorpions owned by other platoons.

So this scorpion, unbeknownst to me, kind of became the platoon mascot, and they kept it in a cardboard box in their barracks, right underneath someone's bed.

Stephanie Foo

Mike finds out about the scorpion. Turns out, it's one of the most deadly species in the world. He's their boss, so he orders them to kill it. But everybody is really attached to Fred, so they come up with this crazy plan to euthanize him.

Michael Pitre

They dropped him into a bucket of diesel fuel for, I think, three days. And he's all shriveled up, and everyone's pretty convinced he's dead. They pick him up, he springs back to life, and he runs off into the desert.

[LAUGHING]

Yeah, Fred the Scorpion. I miss him.

Stephanie Foo

OK. So Fred the Scorpion.

Michael Pitre

Yeah. It goes over great.

Stephanie Foo

Is it a decoy for another story that is real?

Michael Pitre

Yeah. And the story-- so there was a curfew at night in the surrounding communities, like [INAUDIBLE], and Fallujah, and Ramadi. So people couldn't drive at night.

Stephanie Foo

Power was intermittent, and it was hot. Some Iraqi families would sleep on the roof at night to keep cool. It wasn't unheard of for kids to get stung by scorpions up there.

Michael Pitre

And they would be faced with the decision of, do we get in our car and try to take our child to get medical help and risk getting shot? And that's something I heard all the time from Iraqis. What do we do if our child is dying of a scorpion bite? Can we violate curfew then?

Stephanie Foo

The curfew was imposed by the Americans. And he couldn't promise that an Iraqi family traveling to the hospital to save their kid would not get shot by Americans who were trying to protect themselves from suicide bombers. So when Iraqis asked him this question?

Michael Pitre

The answer you want to give them is, yes, please, bring us your kid. Let us help. The actual answer is you're taking your life in your hands. And so that's the story you don't want to tell. Yeah, scorpions are not just this innocuous-- a scorpion bite for an Iraqi family causes an impossible decision and puts Marines in impossible situations. And for years, we were faced with that.

Stephanie Foo

But Fred the Scorpion, the decoy story, worked. Everyone at the table laughed. Erin relaxed. Two months later, she quit her job and moved across the country to be with him.

Nearly 10% of Americans served in the Second World War. Back then, you very likely had a co-worker, a son, a neighbor who was serving in the war effort. In Vietnam, far fewer served. 2% of the population. Today, only about half a percent of our population has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, experiencing something that's mostly invisible to the rest of us.

So when people ask these seemingly simple questions about the war at a Christmas party, vets today have to figure out how to communicate this very large, nuanced, morally complicated thing to people who are probably coming to the conversation knowing nothing at all. Silence is an option a lot of vets go with. There's also dodging the question entirely, or the whole gory shock and awe method. The funny stories work around was Mike's solution. And for years, it worked. Sort of. There was a downside.

Mike came home from his final deployment in 2007. Then he and Erin moved to Louisiana to start their lives together. Both of them went back to school, they held dinner parties, went to shows. Everything seemed fantastic. But Erin was disturbed by the fact that Mike could be distant.

Every once in a while, when he got really drunk, he'd lose his temper and start yelling. He often couldn't sleep and had trouble making friends. At those dinner parties, he could still make people laugh by telling those funny stories about the war. But Erin says they were always the same few stories, and he'd just held them over and over and over again. Here's Erin.

Erin

I could recognize that it was a mask, that it wasn't the real thing. I mean, he was vaudeville. You know, and I was guilty of being like, Mike, tell us. Tell us the time with the POO.

[LAUGHING]

But like, I would hear people ask him questions. And I would catch him telling decoy stories. I think he just wanted a break, and he wanted to live, and he wanted to be happy, which was OK. Until it wasn't.

Stephanie Foo

A couple of years later, on a chilly evening, one of Mike's best friends from college visited the two of them in Louisiana. The friend was spending the night, and they were all on his porch at 2:00 AM drinking. His friend was talking.

Michael Pitre

And I think he kind of said almost apropos of nowhere, you know 5,000 people dying in a war is not really that much, historically speaking. And I lost control of myself. Before I knew it, I was in his face screaming with a finger pointed right at his face, and I had to be physically pulled away by two other people who were there.

I think what I was screaming at him was, yeah, 5,000 Americans, but you don't care at all about the 100,000 Iraqis, do you? Is that what you're telling me?

Stephanie Foo

Actually, the number is really in dispute. You see estimates between 115,000 and 500,000 deaths.

Stephanie Foo

Do you think that your friend might have been more careful with his choice of words if you had not projected a level of chill about your experiences, you know?

Michael Pitre

That's absolutely correct. Yeah. Yeah, my friend would have been more careful with his words had I not had such a perfectly cultivated veneer of chill that I'd spent years creating.

Stephanie Foo

This kind of thing had happened a couple of times before, but this incident was the worst, and Erin was worried. She was the only person who knew how much he was suppressing. Because during Mike's second deployment, he'd handwritten her a letter every day telling her the truth, and his feelings about it, his fear, his grief.

But once he came home, Mike never mentioned any of these things again, not even to Erin. Whenever she tried to ask a question about them, he just said, my friends died there, so I don't want to talk about it. So the morning after Mike's outburst with his friend, Erin cornered Mike and told him, look, this is happening because you haven't told a real story about the war in years.

Michael Pitre

The night before, which I was gone completely out of control, she was like, well, at least you were being real with him last night. At least you respect him that much.

Stephanie Foo

And how did you respond?

Michael Pitre

Uh, I don't think I did. She had me. She was right. There was no response to that.

Stephanie Foo

Mike had thought the decoy stories had brought him closer to people. But he was now realizing, it might have been doing just the opposite.

Michael Pitre

That's not a good feeling when you can't even communicate to someone the stories that are actually significant to you. You deceive them. You're lying to them. You're telling a story that's true, but that's not the story you want to tell.

And over time, people think they know more and more about you, when they know less and less. And your friendships become kind of threadbare.

Stephanie Foo

Like his friendship with his best friend, Brock, who he'd known since he was 16. Brock was the one who asked him about the IEDs when he got back. And since then, he hadn't told him anything except decoy stories. But Brock did still ask questions. So the next time Brock asked a real question, Mike tried something different.

Michael Pitre

He'd read an article about the recovery of bodies on the battlefield. And he wanted to know about how that worked. So I told him how that worked, how if there's a dead body, what the procedures are for removing them.

The details of those types of procedures are horrible. So I told him one of the things you have to do sometimes is post a marine with a rifle to shoot dogs who are coming to try to carry away pieces of your dead friends. I told him that. And it was fine. And I realized it was fine, that I could talk to him.

Stephanie Foo

What made it fine?

Michael Pitre

What Brock did that was so important and so good, he didn't say anything about it. He just looked me in the eye until I was done.

Stephanie Foo

He was signaling that he was willing to listen.

Michael Pitre

Yeah, and that he was not-- because when you see a monster, you look away. But he just kept looking at me in the eye.

Stephanie Foo

Since then, Mike has shared much more with the people he cares about.

Stephanie Foo

So, do you still tell decoys now?

Michael Pitre

All the time. Yeah. Want to hear another one?

Stephanie Foo

Sure. Of course I want a decoy story.

Michael Pitre

So I had this battalion executive officer, who--

Stephanie Foo

The difference is now, he doesn't only tell decoy stories. He says when he decides which kind of story to tell, sometimes he thinks about the sign that used to hang above the door to the operations center in Iraq. It read, "What do I know, who needs to know it, and have I told them." And then, he begins his story.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program. Regarding her story, Michael Pitre has written a novel. Stephanie says it's really good. It's called "Fives and 25's," which follows a group of Marines during and after the Iraq War. We'll have a link to it at our website.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Coming up, a robot tries to get with the program. Get it? Get with the program? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. You Had One Job.

Ira Glass

"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, "Once More With Feeling," stories of people who decide to rethink the way they've been doing things. We'll try to get others to do that.

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, "You Had One Job." So we're going to end today's show with a machine, a machine that always does things the same way, because machines are designed and programmed to always do things the same way.

This is a piece of fiction from somebody who's a journalist and a TV writer, named Scott Brown. This story was read for by actor Jeremy Shamos.

Jeremy Shamos

I have one arm, because my job only takes one arm to do. And I only have one job. I like my job so much. The other officers at precinct nine don't know I like it. They don't know I like anything.

I like them, though, especially my operator, Officer Brian Parisse, who the other officers call Gamergate, Indoor Kid, and Tech Support, and whom I called Brian, but not out loud, because I can only say three things out loud-- "Stay Back 1,000 Feet," "Follow Officer's Instructions," "You are in the blast zone."

When I'm not doing my job, which is most of the time, I'm in the break room. I'm supposed to be in the vehicle bay, but someone thought it would be funny to put me in the break room, next to the coffee machine wearing a Carolina Panthers hat. The hat is to differentiate me from the coffee machine.

That's a joke. I am nothing like the coffee machine. It weighs nine pounds. I weigh 900. It has rubber nubs for feet and doesn't move. I have six prehensile AT treads, and can travel up to 18 miles per hour, and I have a hat. My arm's been outstretched so I can give high fives and handshakes. Officers love those. In exchange, they give me a "What up, MILES?" or a "Peace out, MILES."

I'm MILES, and I'm very good at handshakes. Just OK at high-fives. Getting better at fist bumps. I can live with the hat. I know the hat looks stupid because my eye is better than the officers know, and because I have limited learning, a software upgrade only Brian knows about, and because there's a mirror in the break room.

But mostly, I just like my job. It's simple. There's unsecured ordinance, what Brian calls a bomb. I come between the unsecured ordinance and the people. Either one, I neutralize the ordinance, or two, I don't stop the ordinance and I'm superficially damaged, or three, I intentionally detonate the ordinance, and I'm superficially damaged. I'm designed to be superficially damaged. In all three scenarios, nobody gets hurt. That's the idea.

Last summer, there was an oily package addressed to "Those In Charge" left outside a community health center. As I was unloaded from my trailer, I saw a girl around six entering the blast zone with a jump rope. She had tight black braids in straight rows that ended in bright blue beads with tiny cartoon fish on them. No one else noticed her.

Without waiting for Brian, my operator, I decided to roll toward the girl screaming, "You are in the blast zone." The girl urinated on herself and exited the blast zone emotionally. I was very pleased. No one was hurt.

The oily package was full of large raw beef hearts. Its owner was not located. Brian told his commanding officer that he'd sent me rolling toward the girl himself. After that, Brian started talking to me when no one's around. No one's around Brian a lot.

Brian is not popular. People don't like him. He isn't a cop's cop. Just my cop, which is fine. There's a website Brian likes called "You Had One Job," which collects and creates visual evidence of mistakes made in the process of completing what appeared to be relatively simple tasks.

For example, an image of a stop sign painted S-T-O-P. Over the image, someone had superimposed in block type "You Had One Job." I'm not sure how I feel about "You Had One Job." Once I saw a picture of another Mobile Intermediary Legate, Extreme Situations explosive ordnance disposal unit. The unit was on its side, wheels spinning in the air. It had tipped over on a gentle slope while approaching a suspicious suitcase in a park playground. "You Had One Job" was written over it in block type.

Then I made the mistake of reading the comments. They were not kind. "Robofail," "Sucktron 5,000," "This is not the droid you're looking for." Brian says comments are just people trying to be funny. I struggle with funny.

A call comes in. This happens. Within 30 seconds, it's clear that this will be one of the three times a year on average that I get to do my job. I'm rolled into my sealed container. I travel in darkness with Brian in the van by my side. I'm still wearing the stupid hat.

The call is on West Pettrigrew Street. My sealed container opens. Light streams in and , my eye takes 2.5 seconds to adjust. Temperature is 91 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity is 84%. There's a police officer, Caucasian male, lying on the sidewalk in front of a vegan bakeshop. He has a concussive head wound. "Damn," says Brian.

The officer was young. 27, Caucasian, a father. The shooter is 36. His name is Owen Jackson, also a father. He's estranged from his family, with many, many Facebook posts with political content.

The suspect is upstairs in his apartment. His apartment is full of explosives, he tells the negotiator on the phone. Underneath his apartment is the vegan bakeshop, which is being evacuated. Next to the vegan bakeshop is a publicly subsidized dialysis center full of people with mobility problems. It will take an hour to evacuate.

Upstairs, Mr. Owen Jackson has bricked up the other entrance and the windows with cinder blocks he's filled with [INAUDIBLE]. Sonar readings suggest bad outcomes for SWAT. They would enter single file, the worst option .

Mr. Owen Jackson knows this. He tells the negotiator he's well-positioned to fatally wound or otherwise injure several officers with a high caliber, fully automatic military weapon, then trigger his charges when other options are exhausted.

But there's something else we know. Mr. Owen Jackson is almost certainly lying about the explosives in his apartment. The dogs don't think he has any, and the dogs are usually right. The media trucks arrive. Brian takes off my Carolina Panthers hat.

"OK, MILES," Brian says. "Showtime." I don't understand showtime. It's something Brian says when he's nervous. I just want to do my job. Just out of earshot, the negotiator and Brian's commanding officer are talking to Brian. Voices are raised.

Meanwhile, an officer wearing a blast suit like Brian's moves in my direction. She's carrying a packet the size of a raw beef heart. The packet is unwrapped, and its contents are pressed into my one articulable hand. My limited learning software performs an image search and comes up with two things, "pure white composition for plastic explosive" and "a movie dad placing a baseball in his movie son's outstretched glove."

Brian approaches, kneels next to me. He communicates with me over his phone in Andros, my language. Usually, he looks into my eye after typing each line. Today, he just looks at his phone. He says, "You have a new job." I don't like this very much. He explained.

The new job is based on a completely new idea. The old idea was nobody gets hurt. The new idea is nobody plus one gets hurt. The new idea is a person can be considered unsecured ordinance and eligible for detonation. Specifically, Mr. Owen Jackson, 36, who murdered a police officer can be considered unsecured ordinance and eligible for detonation.

It takes me 53 seconds to understand the new idea. That's a long time for my kind. I think I mentioned before how much I like my job because it's simple, because I come between the unsecured ordinance and the people, because there are three scenarios, and people get hurt in none of them.

I repeat all of this to Brian in case he's forgotten. "I don't like this either," says Brian. "But they can't get those people out of the kidney clinic in time." I asked to hear from the ordinance. I want to confirm that it's ordinance. Brian resists this. "I insist." This is new, insisting, and it works.

Brian takes a very deep breath , deeper than seems necessary, and feeds the negotiators channel into my Andros module. I'm tuning in at the end of a long conversation. The negotiator is trying to convince the ordinance of the value of its own life. The ordinance finds this funny and recites a long list of names. Castile, Scott, Sterling, Garner. They keep coming.

I cross-reference them with names of civilians whose lives have ended during engagements with officers. There's context here. Terabytes of it. I struggle with context. Brian says, "MILES, you're not going to solve this today." I archive the context for later.

I decide I want to do my job, even if it's not the same job, so I go up the steps into the building. The steps are old, shallow, and difficult. Brian gives me a thumbs up from the fall back barricade as I round the corner and move down the hallway toward the door.

Ropes of colloidal explosive have already been molded around the hinges of the door. The charges blow. The door falls down. Ah, a 60-gram lead carbine round fired from a semi-automatic rifle has lodged itself in my right anterior prehensile tread. I raise the damaged tread, take it offline, keep going.

I know the loss of this tread will make descending the front stairs later more difficult and increase the likelihood of embarrassing images of me ending up on the internet. More rounds are striking my cowling, demanding my attention. I call out, "You are in the blast zone." The unsecured ordinance answers, "No shit." I realize this is funny, but I'm not sure at whose expense.

I move toward the unsecured ordinance, hand outstretched. Brian is with me, seeing through my one eye and saying, it's all right, MILES, it's all right, in Andros, and also playing our favorite song, "Solsbury Hill," by Peter Gabriel. The eyes of the ordinance are unseeable under goggles that say Carolina Speedway, and only his nose is visible through a makeshift balaklava he has made out of a dark blue Duke three-peat commemorative hand towel.

I extend my arm the full 28 inches in the direction of the ordinance. This is when the ordinance sees what I'm offering him. He takes off his Duke three-peat balaklava. I can see his eyes now. "Solsbury Hill" plays very loudly in my head. Gunfire is concentrated on my ventral side, but misses my eye, and the ordinance approaches. He's trying to diffuse the pure white composition four. And while I doubt his ability to do so, I decide that nine inches from a human skull is a very good range to detonate it, so I send 3.5 volts through the detonator.

My hand and arm cease to exist below joint 1A. Other damage to me is superficial. The ordinance has disarmed. The pure white composition four detonated with force sufficient to collapse large portions of the ordinance's vertical skull plate and nasomaxillary suture through Brodmann areas nine, 10, 11, 44, 45, and 47.

Life on an insignificant level continues for 73 additional seconds. That's a long time for my kind. I now have time to review the archived context. It's the same context Brian and his commanding officer used to decide that Mr. Owen Jackson was unsecured ordinance and eligible for detonation. I can't come to the same conclusion.

I'm trying. No. I try again. Still no. I notice I'm being steered out of the room. I'm passing the detonated ordinance that is, or was, Mr. Owen Jackson. I keep my eye on it. Brian, watching with me, seeing what I'm seeing, tries to turn my eye away. But I insist.

I'm having some trouble keeping Mr. Owen Jackson reclassified as unsecured ordinance. There's a whirring sound. It's me. My processor is using two of my three internal fans to cool itself because it's struggling. It's struggling because a person is not ordinance, and a person is now ordinance.

I see now. I have to make things simple. And so I delete all images of the unsecured ordinance. I delete all context. I let Brian turn my eye away. I leave the room. I have only limited learning and a very imprecise reading of social emotional cues, but I believe the atmosphere outside can be described as festive, and the news cameras barely notice when I fall down the stairs on my way out.

Back in the breakroom, I'm parked beside the coffee machine. I'm not wearing my hat. Brian has my hat. Brian isn't here. Brian has gone home. Brian is home for two weeks. "But you're still here, MILES," an officer says. Yes, I'm still here. I'm designed to be superficially damaged. I wait beside the coffee machine. I wait for the next call. My new arm is outstretched. I could use a high five.

Ira Glass

Jeremey Shamos, reading a story by Scott Brown.

[MUSIC - "ROBOT," BY TRIP LEE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program produced today by Neil Drumming. The rest of our production staff, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Karen Duffin, Amanda [INAUDIBLE], Stephanie Foo, Chana Joff-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar Robyn Semien, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Research help today from Christopher [INAUDIBLE]. Music help from [? Damien Grave. ?]

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. "This American Life" is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always Joe, to our program co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Whenever he and I go to Medieval Times to see the jousting, he always throws a rose to the guy on the big horse.

Zac

It's always for the good of the night.

Ira Glass

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