118: What You Lookin’ At?
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Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is looking down on earth one day. Spots a mortal woman named Psyche, who is so beautiful Aphrodite is jealous. Sends her son Cupid down to earth to destroy her.
Cupid sees Psyche. Naturally falls in love with the woman his mother hates most in the world. Only surprise about that part of the story is they're not all Jews.
Cupid marries Psyche. But he doesn't want Psyche to know that he's a god. He thinks it'll ruin things. She won't love him for who he is in his heart. She'll just love him because he's famous and powerful.
So he makes her promise to never look at him. They have this passionate love that takes place entirely in the dark. But her girlfriends talk to her behind his back. They tell her that if he never wants her to see him, it must be because he has something to hide, must be a monster.
So she comes to him at night while he's sleeping, with a lit candelabra. And she sees him there. He's naked. He's perfect. He has wings. He's beautiful.
And she's just about to go when some wax from one of the candles falls on him, and he wakes with a start. And their eyes meet. He sees that she's betrayed him. She broke her promise. She doubted his love. She wanted to see. And the gods punish her.
This, I say to you as somebody who works in a medium, radio, where you never see anything-- this is what seeing is all about. Right there. We do not listen to our hearts. We doubt, and then we want to look.
And seeing is about something else. It's about power. I checked with an actual humanities professor, and this is what he told me. Richard Klein teaches at Cornell.
The power of the look to dominate and even destroy is a very old story in human history, and may have biological origins. When a dog, for example, looks directly in the eye of another animal or human, as if to stare it down, that's a certain sign of hostile feelings, a sort of challenge, a prelude to aggression.
It's an ancient rule, he says. It's why slaves don't look in the eyes of their masters. It's why you don't meet the eyes of a king while you bow in his presence. It's why parts of British royalty, even today, prefer not to be seen in public, not to be photographed, even after Princess Diana became the most photographed woman in the world.
And I mean, the monarchy itself, Queen Elizabeth in particular, has long sort of felt that it was, on the contrary, more sort of appropriate to the monarchy, and perhaps even necessary to its survival, that it appear less in public. I think that's one of the reasons why they were so alarmed by Diana. I mean, de Gaulle, in France, believed powerfully that leaders should be little seen and rarely heard, that the power sort of comes from the invisibility.
I've been thinking a lot lately about why somebody would pay $30 to come to a theater and see a show that you can get for free on the radio. And I think that this is the very reason. Right here, on the radio, invisible, we are just too powerful. Seeing us, seeing anybody that you hear on the radio, it makes them human-size-- which seems like a healthy thing, actually.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, today bringing you a co-production with WNYC in New York, a live show from Town Hall in New York City.
Today on our program, as hundreds of people watch us do this show, our theme is What Are You Lookin' At? Stories of what it means to be seen and to see. Act One, American Goth, the story of one woman's ongoing quest to look meaner. Act Two, Lifesavers, the story of a teenage girl who would hit you if you looked at her the wrong way, and what happened when suddenly hundreds of people were looking at her, all at once. Act Three, Climb Every Mountain. Die-hard New Yorker David Rakoff heads off to a land of incomprehensible people who, he worries, are always noticing how different he is, a land called New Hampshire.
Onstage also here at Town Hall, They Might Be Giants and the This American Life Orchestra. Stay with us.
Act One: American Goth
Act One, American Goth.
There are the people who take hours to get dressed, who dress primarily to be seen, and then there are the rest of us. Sometimes someone tries to make the jump from that second group into the first group. Please welcome writer Sarah Vowell.
I'm sitting at my desk quietly minding my own, as they say in the rap songs, when my torturer darkens the doorway. She drags me into a cramped bathroom, shoves my head under a faucet, shines a blinding light in my eyes, cinches my neck in plastic sheeting, and comes at me with scissors. She douses me with chemicals and makes me sit there, dehydrating under the plastic, while the acid stings my flesh.
And so when I look up from my desk and see her standing there with the scissors, I shudder. "Hi, Mom," I say. "Guess you think I need a haircut."
My mother had been a hairdresser before my twin sister Amy and I were born. More precisely, she was a hairdresser in Oklahoma in the 1960s-- the beehive's golden age. Since she gave up her career to take care of us, all that energy that used to go into whipping hundreds of heads into an architectural frenzy was focused on the two of us. And since we were as bald as pharaohs, she killed time while our hair was growing in by Scotch-taping bows to our newborn noggins.
Her ardor for our appearance increased as we got older, and her attentions never stopped at the neck. There were clothes. There were shoes. Accessories.
Amy liked to think about such things, shop for such things. Unlike me, my sister did not threaten to call Amnesty International every time Mom wanted to give her a home perm. I was a bit of an embarrassment to my mother-- all scuffed shoes and stringy hair and lint.
Once, when Amy and I were 14, the three of us were getting out of the car after a trip to the mall. The neighbor woman, who was out watering her yard, saw the shopping bags and asked what we'd bought. Amy showed off her new candy-colored sweater and her hoop earrings and hot pink pants. The woman congratulated Amy. She then turned to me, pointing at the rectangular bulge protruding from the small brown bag in my hand. I reluctantly pulled out my single purchase-- a hardback of The Grapes of Wrath. My mother looked at the neighbor, rolled her eyes in my direction, and stage-whispered, "We're going through a book phase."
And it's such a hopeful, almost utopian word, that word "phase." And now that we are finishing up the third decade of the book phase, we ask ourselves if we have changed. Sure, we still dress in the bruise palette of gray, black, and blue, and we still haven't gotten around to piercing our ears. But we wear lipstick now. We own high-heeled shoes. Concessions have been made.
Still, I have been called a curmudgeon by Bitch magazine. And that's the image I'm cultivating. But truth be told, I'm not as dour-looking as I would like. I'm stuck with this round, sweetie-pie face, tiny, heart-shaped lips, the daintiest dimples, and apple cheeks so rosy I exist in a perpetual blush. At five foot four, I barely squeak by average height. And then there's my voice-- straight out of second grade.
I come across so young and innocent and harmless that I have been carded for buying maple syrup. Tourists feel more than safe approaching me for directions. Telemarketers always ask if my mother is home. And waitresses always, always call me "hon."
So the last time I got my hair cut, I asked my hairdresser if he could make me look more menacing. I said I admired Marilyn Manson's new hairdo, and could he make me look like that? And even though my hairdresser is German and everything, when he was done with me, I have never in my life looked so sickeningly nice.
Is it too much to ask to make strangers nervous, to look shady and untrustworthy and malcontent? Something needed to be done.
I happened to hear about a group of goths in San Francisco who offered goth makeovers to civilians and then take them to a goth club to see if they can pass. Goths, for those unfamiliar with this particular subculture, are the pale-faced, black-clad vampiric types with forlorn stares framed by raccoon eye makeup. The name derives, of course, from gothic, a style, according to my dictionary, emphasizing the grotesque, mysterious, and desolate.
So I called Mary Mitchell, aka Mary Queen of Hurts, and asked for a private lesson in goth. She just told me to come to San Francisco and pack some black clothes, and she and her team of expert goths would handle the rest. Coming up with black apparel for the occasion wasn't particularly problematic for me. One might describe my closet as Johnny Cash once described his-- "It's dark in there."
And I've always admired the goths. There's something brave about them, something romantic and feminine and free, not to mention refreshingly honest. If the funny T-shirt slogans and crisp khaki pants of the average American tell the lie that everything's going to be OK, the black lace garbs and ghoulish capes of goth tell the truth-- that you suffer, then you die. The goths literally wear their hearts on their tattered sleeves, frankly daring the world to stare at their inner ugliness, and stare hard.
I reported to a Market Street address where I met the five members of my death-warmed-over beauty squad. I met Indra, a gorgeous blonde in a long velvet skirt; Terrance, dashing in a velvet smoking jacket; the tall, dark Monique; Elizabeth, in strappy black leather; and, of course Mary, whose seven-inch patent leather heels would relegate her later on to dancing only to the slowest songs for fear of tipping over.
Prior to meeting Mary Queen of Hurts, I found her sadistic nickname entirely appropriate, as she assigned me goth homework to do before my arrival. The assignment consisted of going through a punchy little primer she wrote with Indra and Terrance which outlines the seven steps to "gothitude." Step number six asked me to go through my records and pull out the darkest, saddest song, and play it over and over again. Though the darkest, saddest stuff in my collection is all old country music. So my goth soundtrack is Roy Acuff's godless drunk-driving car-crash number, "Wreck on the Highway." Hit it, boys!
[MUSIC - "WRECK ON THE HIGHWAY"]
The whiskey and blood ran together mixed in the glass where they lay. Death played her hand in destruction but I didn't hear nobody pray.
Before anyone breaks out the eyeliner, we all sit in a circle and go through my homework. The whole thing reminds me of graduate school seminars, except these people are smart and funny and have something interesting to say. They outline and debate the finer points of goth theory. They all turned goth in their early teens, and they are, as Indra puts it, "So in our thirties."
Step one of the guidelines is choosing a goth name. Indra says, "Most of us have changed our name to be something more gothic. A lot of people legally change their name." According to Mary, "If you go into any of the goth clubs nowadays, you'll find a lot of spooky names, like Raven and Rat and Sage."
When I was pondering a good goth name for myself, I paged through my reference books on death and dying, looking for something gruesome. But nothing felt right. Maybe it's because I came of age in the '80s and I've seen Blue Velvet too many times, but to me, the really frightening stuff has nothing to do with ravens and rats. The truly sordid has a sunny, WASP-y glow. Therefore, I tell them, the most perverse name I can think of is "Becky."
It turns out, that by saying the magic word "Becky," I have suddenly moved to the head of the class, goth-wise. As Monique puts it, "You are understanding the pink of goth. You've skipped a couple levels, and you went straight to pink." The group's consensus is that pink is the apex of expert goth, that newcomers and neophytes should stick with basic black, but those confident enough, complex enough, can exude gloom and doom while wearing the color of sugar and spice. Indra argues that pink can be an intelligent, sarcastic color, though Terrance says of experimenting with pink, "Proceed with caution. I can't warn you enough."
As if they need to warn me. It would never occur to me to wear pink, just as it would never occur to Michael Douglas to play a poor person.
These, I realize, are my people. Simpatico. I think that's why, at that moment, I'm willing and able to do something with them that I was never able to do with my mom-- namely, sit still while they poke and prod and paint me, without complaint. I know I'm in the right hands when Terrance reassures me that "when we're done with you, no one will call you 'hon.'"
It's an astonishingly slow process. Indra decides to make me up like the silent film star Louise Brooks, shading in concentric circles of eyeshadow and then liquid eyeliner, which takes a full five minutes to dry. She agonizes over lipstick, applies a birthmark in the shape of a snake on my cheek. Then they dress me. By the time they're done cinching up the corset and stabilizing my bustle, I'm in so many layers of black lace scarves and fringe and fishnet stockings that I could play strip poker for three weeks straight without baring my belly button.
The finishing touches are applied in a full-on pit stop. I sit in a chair and Monique curls my hair while Terrance fusses with my lipstick and Mary paints my nails black, all at once. I find I enjoy this loving, methodical attention. I'm so pleased with the results that I keep looking in the mirror and smiling. I smile so much that Elizabeth reminds me that technically, a good goth is supposed to pout. But I'm too giddy.
Something occurs to me. What if all those years, my mom wanted to do just this-- sit me down and fiddle with my hair, not because she wanted to torture me, or because she was embarrassed about how I looked, or because she missed her job. What if she wanted to do this for me to show me that she loves me? If all along, she was trying to give me the feeling I'm getting from these strangers? I thought she was the oppressor and I was the victim. But it's just as true the other way around.
It was time to go to the club. But after two hours of primping, I was tired. I ask them if they ever spend so much time doing their hair and makeup that they're too pooped to go out. They said that for this very reason, there is a goth rule. You have to stay at the club at least as long as it takes to get dressed up.
The club we go to is called Roderick's Chamber, cheerfully named for a character in Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." Everywhere blackness, leather, lace, frowns. And music. But while regular dance club music clips by at the pace "wah wah wah wah-wah wah-wah wah wah," the goth club music is sluggish, slowed down. "Wah-- wah-- wah-- wah wah wah wah-- wah wah."
[MUSIC - GOTHY CLUB TUNE]
The thing I love most about the goth club is how passive it is. Hardly anyone talks to anyone else. It is free of the normal social pressures to smile, and interact, and appear content. There's none of that "getting to know you" pick-up crap. In fact, the mood is antithetical to pick-ups. It's more like, stay away. No one cares if you dance. No one cares if you don't. As someone who often dreads strangers, the anti-social nature of this social situation makes me feel communal and part of something, one of us. Like, "hey, I hate talking to you, too!" It is completely liberating.
The whole point of going there is to stare and be stared at. Someone walking in off the street might think, what's the fun in that? And the answer is, all the interaction, all the fun, all the real moments happen at home when you're getting dressed, talking to your friends about how you'll look. The club is about being seen, which is so inferior.
After the mandatory two hours, I hug my goths goodbye and hail a cab. Usually I am a cab driver's dream-- polite, small, nonthreatening. Perhaps that is why cab drivers always talk to me. But tonight, I am Becky. I am goth. Not a word from the driver. Bless him, he keeps staring at me and my eye makeup in the rear-view mirror, watching his back. She is menacing, he's thinking. I can tell.
His fear pays off. I tip him extravagantly. So extravagantly that I blow my cover. He turns and gives me a look that says, "Thanks, hon."
[MUSIC - "SHOEHORN WITH TEETH" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]
Mr. Dan Hickey, ladies and gentlemen.
Act Two: Lifesavers
Act Two, Lifesavers.
Last month I was doing this project as a favor for a friend where I was interviewing a lot of kids in arts programs around the city of Chicago. And as part of that project, I met this 18-year-old girl named Lucia Lopez. Back when she was 16, through a sort of fluke, Lucia joined a group called Music Theatre Workshop in Chicago. And it happened some kids basically just came through the neighborhood interviewing teenagers about their lives, and then those kids wrote a play about what they got, and invited Lucia to be in the play, to play herself.
And at first, when she joined the group, the other kids were scared of her. She was much tougher, much more street, in a gang. Most of her family was in the gang, which in Chicago is a kind of common formulation. She herself had served time in juvie.
Yeah, I went to people, like, what are you looking at? Do have a problem? Well, do I look like somebody or am I somebody? And then people would be like, no, I ain't looking at you. I was just wondering who you are. And I'm like, well, keep on wondering because you know, whatever, but don't be looking at me like that. Because, you know, something could kick off.
Since I grew up in my house with having violence. Like when my stepfather is a very violent man. So it was like one of those things that it was an instinct. If anybody touched me, it was right there and then, we had to hit. And plus, like--
You had to hit?
Well, you know. It was just like that. If anybody even stared at me, it was like, what are you looking at? Do you have a problem? [? Because you know it would ?] start it off, so we could just kick it off right here and there.
Not long after she started with the theater group, she missed two rehearsals in a row, and the head of the group, Meade Palidofsky, replaced her in the show with another girl. Rules are rules.
Then Lucia came back. What was especially galling to her was that this other girl, Ruchelle, was going to be onstage, reciting Lucia's life story, things that had happened to Lucia that were in the script. Meade and another girl in the group tell what happened when Lucia showed up again.
Well, she was upset, but she was-- when she came back in and I told her that Ruchelle had taken her place, she was like, I'm going to go beat her up. I mean, I had to stop her. I said, no, if you're going to beat somebody up, you should beat me up, because I'm the one that gave her the part.
And the rest of us were sent to an early lunch that day.
Exactly. So I had to calm her down and say no, don't beat Ruchelle up, you know? It's all right. And we talked to her, and eventually we split the part up. We realized how much it meant to her, but then she also had to realize that if it meant that much, she needed to come to rehearsal.
Back when she entered public school, like a lot of kids from her neighborhood, Lucia didn't speak English, didn't do well. As she got older, she found herself getting mad at the other kids, fighting all the time.
And I can't get a decent sleep ever. I go to school with this image in my head, like, oh my god, I see my mom's head getting bashed in the walls. And it's just like, I think that's what turned me into a very violent kid. Just, you know, the kids being happy was very tough for me. Because I was like, why can't I have fun like that? Why can't I live like that? Why is it so difficult?
I was really bad. I was very bad with teachers. If a teacher were to even tell me, Lucia, be quiet! Whatever. I felt that as an attack, so I was like, well, they're going to attack me. I should attack first. There was points where I smacked teachers, throwing chairs, whatever. You name it.
And since I was a little girl growing up, I never, never had an OK day. Do you understand me? I never had anything like, you know, it's going to be cool today. It's going to be OK. You're not going to hear one of your friends dead, and you're not going to hear your dad coming in the house, beating up on your mom. You're not going to hear that. It's just going to be OK. And that was just one of the things that-- I just go into a whole different world.
To hear Lucia tell it, she had never met kids like the ones in the theater group-- kids who were strong and independent, but who weren't in a gang. And at first they were literally incomprehensible. The way they goofed around with each other, the way they talked to each other-- she'd just watch them, trying to understand why they acted the way they did. Why were they so happy all the time?
I just started seeing, these kids weren't in gangs. And they had the time of their lives, you know? And I had a lot of them telling me, you don't have to be there. You don't have to do this and that.
You mean, the MCW kids were saying, you don't have to be in a gang.
And then just to hear somebody from my age to tell me that, that really turned me on. I was like, huh. To have this person's my age and they're thinking like this. Why don't I think like that? I always thought, man, what's wrong with me?
They were the only people in her life who were urging her to change, to quit the gang. Everybody else in her life was either in the gang or close to it. And I should just point out, this is very common. So many gang kids that you meet in Chicago-- if you ask, is anybody trying to convince you to quit the gang? They'll tell you no.
And central to the change that Lucia had to go through was this whole idea of, what are you looking at? Is it OK for somebody to just look at you without it turning into some kind of fight? And for a long time, even in the theater group, she struggled, and she just thought, no.
And if you looked at me in any wrong way, no matter how you looked at me, man, you'll be dealt with.
You know what's so weird, is that you got out of the whole thing by putting yourself in a position where you're onstage and people are looking at you.
Yeah, exactly. I'll be like, wow, you know? I guess I got to get used to it. I was thinking, I can't be attacking everybody who's looking at me doing the play.
So you'd be standing onstage, in a play, in costume, and you'd look out, and you'd see all these people looking at you. And going through your mind would be--
Yeah, like, what the hell are you looking at? [INAUDIBLE] What's your problem or whatever? Yeah, just like, oh, what are they looking at me for? Just like, man, should I tell them something? Should I go on the mike and say, do you all have a problem? Should I be attacking? This is what's going through my mind.
A researcher at Stanford University named Shirley Brice Heath has done this remarkable study where she sent a team of researchers into 120 afterschool programs for kids over the course of 10 years. And seven years into the study, she found this result that she was not even looking for. It turns out that arts programs were more effective in changing kids' lives than any other kind of program for kids. More than sports and academic programs, more than community service programs, the art kids not only tended to come from worse backgrounds than kids in the other programs-- that is, they were more likely to have a parent who was unemployed, they were more likely to have friends who were dropouts, they were more likely to get into fights at school. But after being in these programs, they became kids who were more likely to read for pleasure, they were more likely to be in honor societies, get academic honors, they were more entrepreneurial, they started projects, they were more willing to teach other kids.
Shirley Brice Heath said that's because the arts programs tended to involve kids in more complicated collaborations with each other. They were just doing harder stuff, and they were critiquing it, and making big plans, and contingency plans, and reevaluating plans. And they learned all these verbal skills.
Her study also showed that although those programs are the most effective at helping the kids who are the most at risk in our society, they have a terrible time staying afloat. Nine out of ten of them can't find funding sources and die within eight years. The program that Lucia was in is constantly struggling for money. Music Theatre Workshop, great program. Constantly struggling for funding.
I asked Lucia if it mattered that this was an arts group that she was in, that they were doing a play. Wouldn't she have changed if she had fallen in with any group of kids who she liked, who were not in gangs, who she could get to know this way? And she said, absolutely not. She said part of what helped her change so much, part of what helped her quit the gang and go to school had specifically to do with the fact that it was a play, that it was art doing what art does, if you're lucky, which is change you.
I think the play did it a lot, the play itself. Because like I said, since it was part of my life story and stuff, and playing it-- since you're doing it over and over, it's like one of the things that you're just letting it go. You put just everything. Like how can I say it? The whole drama skit of your whole life, just on paper. Let it fly away, whatever. Let it be thrown in the garbage. Just-- it happened.
Time to move on.
Yeah. Exactly. Just live on, just live on with peace, finally. So that's one of the good things. Just with peace. And going to sleep better.
Well, it seemed wrong to fly all the way to New York from Chicago, to this huge, beautiful theater right off Broadway, and tell Lucia's story, and not give her the chance to come and perform herself. So doing a scene adapted from her Music Theatre Workshop play, please welcome 18-year-old Lucia Lopez.
They call it a walk by. It's five or six guys from another gang coming in slowly. Screaming and representing, wearing the masks on their face. Bullets are flying everywhere. And then I see Roberto, my brother's best friend, on the ground, holding his chest while he was trying to breathe. A lot of the ladies in the neighborhood start screaming from the windows, "We call 911!" The old ladies are praying with the rosaries.
Then the cops come to investigate. It takes a long time before the ambulance shows up. The cops even have time to question us, question the neighbors, and look in the bushes. The ambulance guys move really slowly. They pull out the stretcher. They talk to the cops. We scream at them, "Do something!"
Meanwhile, two other guys who shot Roberto are walking around, making sure he's dying. If he doesn't die, then they'll wait to do another walk by. So they change their clothes so we can't recognize them. They took a look around to see who else is there or to see who they'll go after when they come back.
Roberto's still breathing. Everyone's telling the paramedics to hurry up while the ladies are still yelling at them in Spanish. [SPEAKING SPANISH] I hope it happens to you. The paramedics just take a look at them like, what are you saying? They take a look at Roberto. They see his baggy clothes, his gang colors, his gold chain. They see that he is Mexican and they don't care. They don't want to go near him. They don't want to touch him.
But I see him, bleeding with his eyes, breathing, trying to grasp what little life he had left. One of the paramedics says, "Why should we even bother? He's in a gang. We fix him up and he'll just got shot again." I'm thinking to myself, he's still alive. He heard them say this. His eyes are looking into mine. Please, get them to do something.
Finally, they pick up Roberto. They throw him in the ambulance, slam the door shut, and drive off. Everybody stands there a moment, not knowing what to do.
But I wanted to run after them. Strangle them. Show them what we have to go through. Walk over their dying bodies and do nothing. But instead, I turned around like everyone else and went home.
Roberto died before he even got to the hospital, before his mother even got to see him. The only people with him when he died were those paramedics. He spent his last moments of his life with those three guys.
[MUSIC - "SHE'S ACTUAL SIZE" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]
They Might Be Giants. Coming up-- climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow. Just do it without me. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Climb Every Mountain
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Coming to you today from the stage of Town Hall in New York City.
Each week on the program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that theme. Today, from the stage, with hundreds of people looking at us-- What Are You Lookin' At? We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Climb Every Mountain.
Adulthood means, among other things, pretending to be confident in situations where you feel anything but. "What are you looking at?" is the question that blares through our heads in moments when it feels like the veneer of adulthood is not convincing anyone. David Rakoff was born in Toronto, moved to New York when he was a teenager. He has so successfully learned to pass himself off as a native New Yorker that usually even he believes he's one. The only problem is, sometimes he has to actually leave the five boroughs of New York City. Please welcome David Rakoff.
I do not go outdoors. Not more than I have to. As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of living in New York City is indoors. You want greenery? Order the spinach.
Paradoxically, I am being sent by an outdoor adventure magazine to climb a mountain on Christmas Day with a man named Larry Davis. Larry has climbed Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire every day for the last five plus years. I will join him on ascent number 2,065.
The trip up to New Hampshire will involve a tiny plane from Boston. I tear my medicine cabinet apart like Billie Holiday and still only uncover one Xanax. The hiking boots the magazine sent me to buy, large, ungainly potato-like things that I've been trying to break in for the past four days, cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters. I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually reserve for people. Just think, the shoes I wouldn't be caught dead in might just turn out to be the shoes I am caught dead in.
It bears mentioning here that Monadnock is not Everest. It is 3,000 feet high and the most climbed mountain in the world. It's not even a real mountain.
I do not let this sway me from my worrying. I have other reasons for concern. My status as an adult perpetually teeters on the verge of being exposed as a sham and revoked. Plus, I am only playing at reporter here. I have, up to this point, relied upon my relentlessly jokey, glib, runny-mouthed logorrhea and the unwarranted good graces of magazine editors who just let me make stuff up. I have never been sent anywhere on someone else's dime, and it takes all of my strength not to call my editor and tell him that the jig is finally up, that I cannot do this piece. It seems too bad that the jig has to be up so far from my home in New York, with its excitement, bright lights, and major teaching hospitals.
The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas. that's a complete lie, really. The central drama in my life is actually about being lonely and thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.
At the connecting airline at the Boston airport, I sit, the only dark-haired person among the broad-faced butter-eaters, wondering if my outdoors journalist drag-- flannel shirt, jeans, most hated boots of Satan's workshop, down jacket-- is fooling anybody. A brief flight and half a Xanax later, I land in New Hampshire, horrified to learn that the place where I'll be staying is a bed and breakfast, not a hotel. My heart sinks. That means there is probably neither television nor phone in my room, and I have very little patience for what is generally labeled charming. In particular, country charm. I have an intense dislike of flowered wallpaper. Ditto jam of all sorts.
The former is in all-too-abundant evidence when I enter, and the latter, I'm sure, lies in ominous wait somewhere in the cheery kitchen. There is a knotty pine bar off the entrance hall with a settee with several embroidered pillows. "I'd rather be golfing." "On the eighth day, God created golf." "Golfers have sex in some humorous, golf-related manner." Et cetera.
The proprietress is the kind of tall, stalwart woman of a certain age that used to be called "handsome." She is approximately nine feet tall. Her eyes are blue, resolute. Her faithful dog Charlie at her side. She smiles at me warmly and introduces herself as Annie, extending a hand the size of a frying pan. "You must be Dave," she says. In New England, everyone calls you Dave, regardless of however many times you might introduce yourself as David.
I'm reminded of those fanatically religious homophobes who stand on the steps of Saint Patrick's Cathedral during gay pride, holding signs that say, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." I have always wanted to go up to them and say, well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Steven.
"You're in room three," she continues. "Why don't you go into the dining room, and have some lunch, and then we'll talk some. Come on, Charlie dog." In spite of myself, I am charmed. She puts on a dark green slicker and knee-high Wellingtons and is out the door, presumably to chop the ice off the pond, deliver a calf, or simply raise a barn.
I eat a club sandwich and drink some coffee to try to eradicate my Xanax buzz. I am trying to appear legitimate, masculine, adult, like I deserve to be there. Larry Davis stops by the inn. I shake his hand in a hardy, hale, fellow-well-met way. As my reward, he gives me dispensation to climb the next day in my $20 plastic Payless shoes.
I realize I've done almost no research for this trip, so I walk into downtown Jaffrey to check things out. This seems to smack to me of journalistic realness, a kind of topography as destiny, New Journalism, Joan Didion opening, perhaps. I am taking notes by speaking into a little tape recorder. Perhaps that is what attracts attention.
Or perhaps it is that there is not another living creature out at 5:00 PM on Christmas Eve, because a car passes and immediately circles back. The driver rolls down his window and asks me if I want a lift. I do not. But "how nice," I think. He drives on.
I'm charmed by the congeniality of this interchange. How friendly. How uncreepy. I speak too soon. He circles back. He hands me a rectangular package in tartan wrapping paper. "Take this. The most-watched video in the world," he says. This man is giving me a copy of Forrest Gump? "It's The Life of Jesus." I beg off politely, claiming Judaic immunity. He drives on.
Here's an interrupting thought. If your therapist calls to reschedule your appointment, as mine did just at the moment I finished writing this part of the story, and you make him laugh, as always, and if in wrapping up, you say, "Well, I'll see you on Wednesday at 12:30 then," and he responds, "I'm looking forward to it," is that bad?
I return to the inn, now wreathed in the kind of Christmas-in-New-England, warm-hearthed cheery verisimilitude that Ralph Lauren would burn down a synagogue to achieve. Nat King Cole's Christmas album plays at tooth-loosening decibels. I go upstairs and continue reading the new Truman Capote biography. The inn starts to fill up with families and couples who have come for Christmas Eve dinner. Alone, Jewish, and awash in unkind thoughts about Christmas and the countryside as I am, I stay out of sight, for the most part. I can hear general revelry and prandial merriment coming from the dining room.
Finally, I head directly into the bar of golf pillows. Annie is there with a couple. "Merry Christmas, Dave," she greets me. A retired airline pilot sits at the bar enjoying a decidedly un-New England cocktail with an orange slice, maraschino cherry, and pineapple spear crowding the glass. The bartender is a woman in a sweater knit with a portrait of a family of snow people. The wife of the couple also wears a sweater, knit with a smiling, holly-festooned teddy bear.
The husband presents Annie with a very well-rendered framed watercolor of a widemouth bass. It's really very good, and I say so. "Well, we'll put it here to keep you company," says Annie, propping the frame up on the bar stool next to mine. I make sure to look at it attentively, my face frozen into the art appreciation rictus until Annie and the couple go into the dining room. Cricking my neck, I order a steak and a red wine.
"Are you the writer?" the bartender asks me. "The writer." Finally. Despite the fact, or precisely because this is just what I wanted, I reply, my voice far too bright, "Oh, god, no. I'm a complete idiot." She doesn't entirely know how to take this. She gives me the careful half-smile one levels at a very large, possibly erratic dog.
The pilot is the anti-me, a man so utterly comfortable with himself that he can drink a cocktail with no fewer than three different pieces of fruit in it, and still seem the very picture of adulthood. He talks a while about fixing up houses. It's what he does in his retirement. His voice is velvet-soft and Atticus Finch-authoritative. But there's a sad whiff of mortality, a smell of old leaves, underneath everything he speaks of. It's a bit like watching This Old House hosted by Baudelaire.
The pilot leaves fairly early in the evening. I hope he had somewhere to go. Then again, I think, I don't have anywhere to go. Why am I so concerned with the imagined loneliness of a total stranger? Then again again, I actually am somewhere. I'm sitting in a bar of a New England inn on Christmas Eve. I am the writer, eating a steak, drinking alone, talking to the bartender. And even though I loathe animals, I lazily toss bits of popcorn to Charlie as he sits at the foot of my bar stool. It's just me and the bartender and my faithful dog. Plus my date, the widemouth bass, whom I've been ignoring.
I fairly drip with authenticity now. I have let go of my paranoia about being scrutinized. I feel completely comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that inexplicably, I find myself asking the bartender if there's either a synagogue or a gay bar in Jaffrey. I clearly feel the need to out myself to her in every possible way. Why stop there, I wonder, and not just go ahead and ask if there is a Canadian consulate nearby?
She keeps refilling my wine glass as we talk. She cuts me an enormous piece of baklava. More popcorn for the dog. I have a mountain to climb in the morning, damn it.
My reverie is undone by the strange series of glottal kecks and surds coming from below. I look down to Charlie dog, whose neck is arching forward and back in an ominously regular, reverse peristaltic fashion. I find the words as my voice Dopplers up to a fairly effeminate and vaguely hysterical pitch. "I think the dog might be getting sick. The dog is getting sick. Oh my [UNINTELLIGIBLE], the dog is sick!"
Charlie vomits out a small, viscous puddle for which, from my quick and queasy perusal, I am largely responsible. The bartender cleans it up without a second glance. Thoroughly unmasked, I settle up for dinner and take myself upstairs to sleep. And to all a good night.
The climb hardly bears mentioning. It was fairly awful-- cold, slippery, kind of arduous, in the middle of an ice storm. Although kind of monochromatically silvery, pale, and glamorous at the top.
A lot of the talk focuses on "1028's." "Think we'll see any 1028's?" "She was a real 1028." "All we need is some 1028's to make this a perfect Christmas." "1028" is code for babes.
I realize that everything about me-- my inappropriate footwear, my effete lexicon, my unfamiliarity with such natural phenomena as trees, rock, and ice-- are all met with great equanimity and good grace. They're friendly. It becomes quite clear to me that the only one casting strange glances of disapproval my way is me.
At the summit, I made Larry take my picture a number of times. When the film comes back, I will look at the photos of myself, scanning them for evidence. Looking for the face of an adult, the face of a man who climbs mountains, the face of a Dave. Thank you.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Our musicians, John Linnell, John Flansburgh, Dan Miller, Dan Hickey, Dan Levine, Danny Weinkauf, and Jim O'Connor. Production help from Emi Takahara, Sylvia Lemus, Chris Ladd, and Todd Bachmann.
Onstage, this show has lasted for an hour and a half. If you want to hear the entire thing, unedited, visit our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. Or you know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who says this to me at least once a week--
There is a Canadian consulate nearby.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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