Transcript

731: What Lies Beneath

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Announcer

A quick warning-- there are curse words that are unbeeped in today's episode of this show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Ira Glass

OK, before you can understand how Bob's sister became the talk of the third grade and the big day that that led to that people still remember, I need to explain first that Bob's sister is a drawing. The teacher in this third grade class, Mr. Ablao, spotted it one day while teaching math. He saw one of the students, Antonio, working on a picture.

Mr. Ablao

I went over to him and said, put the picture away. I probably did that two or three times. And then the fourth time I went over, and I just took the picture and said, pay attention. It's math class. And I put it on my desk. He came up right before recess and is like, can I have my picture back? And I was like, what is this picture of anyways? And he said, it's Bob's sister. And I'm like, who's Bob sister? It turns out Bob's sister is a minion, which I don't even think Bob's sister exists in the minion world.

Ira Glass

You're saying the minions from the movie, Despicable Me?

Mr. Ablao

Yes, exactly.

Ira Glass

And he had just invented a sister character for Bob?

Mr. Ablao

Yeah, apparently.

Ira Glass

Mr. Ablao taped the drawing to the bookshelf behind his desk, near a photo of a wolf that was already there. Because it was clear if Antonio kept the drawing, it would continue to be a distraction to him and a couple of his friends, who, at that point, were the only ones in class who really cared about Bob's sister.

Mr. Ablao

I was like, don't worry. She's not going anywhere. She'll be right here. Any time you want to see her, she'll be behind me.

Ira Glass

Because the kids were into the picture of Bob's sister.

Mr. Ablao

Yeah, and I didn't really quite understand why. I never investigated why this picture was such a big deal. But yeah, they would talk about it. They would go up and look at it. And yeah, it was a thing.

Ira Glass

Why were you guys so excited about Bob's sister, do you think?

Dylan

I think it's because it was another distraction in class that people could talk about.

Ira Glass

That's straightforward enough. This is Dylan, one of Antonio's friends, who was into Bob's sister from the start.

Ira Glass

Describe the drawing.

Dylan

It's just like an octopus. And then it had two eyes and then tentacles coming out of it.

Ira Glass

I didn't realize Bob's sister was an octopus?

Dylan

Bob's sister was an octopus.

Ira Glass

But Bob's a minion.

Dylan

Well, it didn't really have anything to do with that.

Ira Glass

And was he referring to the minion, Bob, or am I just--

Dylan

No, he was not.

Ira Glass

I see. Was it a good drawing?

Dylan

It was like an eight-year-old's OK drawing. It wasn't amazing, but it was like, you knew what it was.

Ira Glass

This whole question-- is it an octopus, is it a minion-- I asked Antonio, who drew Bob's sister, about that. He tended to see Bob's sister as a Pac-Man ghost with big eyes, but he said-- and I thought this was surprisingly mature for somebody in elementary school. He thought part of the appeal of Bob's sister was that it was open to interpretation.

Antonio

I really don't know what it is. It's a thing. I don't know what it-- it's lots of different things. You could think of it as a minion that looks weird. You could think of it as Fly Guy with no legs. You could think of it as Pac-Man ghost with big eyes. Bob's sister was different to everybody. We never went with one of them. We didn't say anything. Anyone could believe what they want.

Ira Glass

But the thing that was key to Bob's sister was, Bob's sister wasn't actually anyone's sister.

Antonio

Its name was just Bobsister, no space.

Ira Glass

That's really funny.

Antonio

And we didn't come up with a gender either.

Ira Glass

So Bobsister, gender unspecified, lived on the bookshelf near the photo of a wolf, until one week when Mr. Ablao went on vacation and the kids had a substitute. When Mr. Ablao came back, Bobsister was gone, vanished, disappeared, and was all the kids wanted to talk about. This is the point where everybody in class gets very, very interested in Bobsister.

Mr. Ablao

There's kind of all this speculation about what happened to Bobsister. Was she stolen? Was she murdered? Did she die? And so, I go and I look a little bit. I looked under the desk. I looked behind the bookshelf and--

Ira Glass

Did you ask the substitute?

Mr. Ablao

I did, actually. He had no idea what I was talking about, which was good enough for me.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? For me, that makes him suspect number one.

Mr. Ablao

[LAUGHS] Interesting.

Ira Glass

There's your guy. Do you not watch any crime drama at all?

There are all kinds of theories about what happened to Bobsister. Antonio and Dylan said it was really fun to talk about-- various abductors, including animals from an alternate universe. But Dylan says the prime suspect for his classmates? That other picture on the bookshelf.

Dylan

They just decided that the wolf ate it because it was right above the wolf.

Ira Glass

Like the wolf was jealous or something.

Dylan

They didn't really know why. They just-- that's what they said.

Ira Glass

Who said that?

Dylan

Basically everybody.

Ira Glass

I mean, he's a wolf.

Dylan

Yeah.

Ira Glass

The chatter about Bobsister does not go away, which is funny, but also Mr. Ablao's got a curriculum to get through.

Mr. Ablao

And I'm kind of vaguely annoyed because there's a lot going on in the school day, and I don't have much time to think about a picture of Bobsister. But they're kind of pestering me about it. And then one other student--

Ira Glass

Dylan, actually.

Mr. Ablao

--pipes in and says, can we have a funeral for Bobsister? And I'm like, what are you talking about? And they're like, well, she died. Something happened. And I'm like, a funeral for Bobsister, a picture? And I say yes.

Ira Glass

Probably just to get them to stop talking about Bobsister. But also, this is the kind of teacher he is. He says, sometimes, it's smart to take some detours, follow things the way they lead.

Mr. Ablao

And they're like, when? I'm like, uh, I don't know when. I don't know when this funeral is going to happen. And they're like, when? When's it going to happen? When's it going to happen? We are going to have a funeral for Bobsister. And so then, finally, I'm like, after the recess on Friday.

Ira Glass

That was Monday. The rest of the week goes pretty normally. Mr. Ablao sort of hoped that they would forget about the funeral by the end of the week, but no way. They were murmuring about it, preparing for it-- which he has no part of. The eight-year-olds are the ones organizing this and thinking it through. Finally, Friday arrives, the big day, the day of the funeral. The kids come back into the room from recess.

Mr. Ablao

They're pretty giddy and pretty excited, so finally, I'm like, OK, game on, let's go. Funeral. I have no idea what is about to transpire. All of a sudden, boom, the tables kind of move out of the way. The leader of the funeral comes up with the stool. Two other students bring two tables and grab the flowers. Apparently, a bunch of girls had been making posters. They write Bobsister's Funeral on the board.

Ira Glass

Dylan's the leader of the funeral. And he prepared a eulogy. So did his friend, Theo. Dylan gets in front of the class, holding a microphone Mr. Ablao keeps in the room.

Mr. Ablao

The rest of the class is totally on the edge of their seats, just waiting for this kid to start the funeral, like paying more attention to him than they ever paid to me. And they were just ready for it. He starts out kind of ad-libbing about welcoming everyone, thanking everyone for coming to celebrate the life of Bobsister.

Ira Glass

Now, how did you know what to say in the eulogy?

Dylan

We didn't. We just said some things that sounded about right, like something that you might say at a funeral that might make someone cry.

Ira Glass

Do you have your eulogy there?

Dylan

Yeah. Take it out?

Ira Glass

Could you read it?

Dylan

OK, one sec. And then it sort of-- mine also says, sort of back and forth, she and he, so. Because I didn't really know. "Bobsister was a great person. People thought that Bob was just a drawing on a piece of paper, but I knew he was anything but that. But she is still in here. She made me think I could do things in school. If she was here today, she would say keep on trying."

Ira Glass

That's really nice. It sounds like you were trying to be sort of inspiring.

Dylan

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Had you seen a eulogy in a movie or something that you knew what to do?

Dylan

Nope, never.

Ira Glass

Whoa.

The other eulogy that Theo wrote was also really good. "I just want to say something about the special person here, Bobsister. She was such a good friend to all the potatoes and especially, Mr. Potato Head." Potatoes were another fascination in Mr. Ablao's class that year. "What an honor it was to have her with us. God bless her." And then, from the back of the room, Mr. Ablao hears a boy crying.

Mr. Ablao

I would say almost wailing, but it was like a real cry. And at first, I'm thinking, oh my God, now they're just turning this into a joke. And then, I realized that he's actually seriously crying. Like, this is not a joke cry.

And I walk back there. And everyone kind of turns back. Everyone's looking at both of us. And so, I ask him. I was like, what's wrong? What's going on? Why are you crying? And he's like, it's because Bobsister died. And I was like, it's not about anything else? Maybe? And he's like, no, it's Bobsister has died, and it's just so sad.

Ira Glass

Mr. Ablao thinks maybe it was really about his dog. The dog that boy had grown up with had died just two weeks before. His mom had sent an email to let him know. But Mr. Ablao is really not sure. At eight, you're old enough to catch a glimpse of what death means.

Mr. Ablao

And then I look up, and then the whole kind of feel of the classroom has changed. It's gone from kind of giddy excitement, this is a fun thing, to half the class is nervously laughing. And the other half looks like they're on the verge of tears. There's about three girls that are kind of really sad. And I was like, oh no, what have I created?

This was reaching an emotional level that I actually had never experienced before. And I've been teaching for about 15 years. And I had never felt kind of this-- not that it was getting out of control, but it was it was leading to something that I didn't know how it was going to end, honestly. I don't know what's going to happen next. If three other kids start crying, I don't know how to handle the situation.

Ira Glass

Right.

Mr. Ablao

I had never experienced that in a classroom.

Ira Glass

It's so interesting. It's like they were playing around with-- I don't know-- a Ouija board and joking around. And suddenly, they accidentally summoned a demon into the room.

Mr. Ablao

Yeah, in a way. And for me, I was right there on the Ouija board with them.

Ira Glass

And so this monster's in the room. You've unleashed this, really, kind of a primal force, this grief, right?

Mr. Ablao

Yeah, grief, death. Mm-hmm. And I mean, one of the really neat things about third grade is, it's-- I mean, there's a saying, they stop learning to read and are reading to learn. So it's an age where their world gets a lot bigger. They kind of are experiencing real things. And I think a funeral is one of those things. They probably all heard of a funeral. They read them in books, but most of them probably hadn't been to one and didn't know what that felt like.

Ira Glass

And Mr. Ablao felt responsible to help them through this new experience, like he had lots of others that year. So he took control of the room back from the kids and addressed them all.

Mr. Ablao

I was like, well, funerals are kind of serious. Sometimes when you go to a funeral, it's very sad because you're missing the person that's moved on. And sometimes it reminds you of other people who have moved on. And it's important to remember those people. And it's important to be sad. And this is the end of the funeral.

Ira Glass

Which worked. Everybody snapped out of it. The demon left the room. Next was free time, which they all enjoy, and everything was fine. But at the end of the school year, when the class stood in a circle and each kid named something that they remembered and liked from third grade, a couple of the kids said Bobsister's funeral. It was a moment for Mr. Ablao, too.

Sometimes you're joking around, and it's all light and fun and trying something you've never done before. And some bigger subterranean force gets unleashed. That's what our show is going to be about today, those moments when you get a glimpse of all that feeling that's there down below, hidden from sight. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Through The Eye Of A Needle

Ira Glass

Act One, Through the Eye of a Needle. So let's move now from young people contemplating death to the exact opposite-- older people realizing that their lives are saved and feeling great about it. And one place where people are feeling that feeling lately-- when they get the coronavirus vaccine. All over our great nation, over a million people a day are now getting the vaccine, which still leaves most of us-- speaking for myself-- jealous and wondering what happens in those little rooms.

Nurses are coming out of retirement, sometimes without pay, to volunteer and give us shots and try to save us all. Tobin Low, one of our editors here, his mom is one of those nurses-- has been doing vaccinations in California.

Tobin Low

I want to ask you about the first person that you gave the vaccine to. Can you tell me that story?

Vivian

Remind me a little bit, because I've been doing this now for--

Tobin Low

Mom, it was dad.

Vivian

Oh, oh!

Tobin Low

You gave dad--

[LAUGHTER]

Vivian

You're right. So, um.

[LAUGHTER]

Boy.

Tobin Low

So tell me about vaccinating dad.

Vivian

OK. I had not given a vaccine in 15 years. And so, he was my first vaccine after 15 years. He was a good sport about it. And it all went well.

Tobin Low

Was there a kiss afterwards, or is that unprofessional?

Vivian

You know, we were in a work setting. And so, it was all business.

Ira Glass

It's not always all business. Feelings do bubble up to the surface. One of our producers, David Kestenbaum, was curious about what happens when people get the shots. He talked to nurses who have been administering the vaccine, sometimes going through this kind of intense moment with total strangers, one after another. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

Iris Sanchez heard they were looking for nurses to volunteer in Texas in an email. I don't think she even finished reading it.

Iris Sanchez

Oh my God, I got so excited because I know that these spots fill up really fast. So I just kept looking, and my hands were shaking. Like, where's the link? Where's the link? I want to beat everybody to it. I don't want to get left out, so.

David Kestenbaum

That's how people describe signing up to get the vaccine.

Iris Sanchez

You know what? Yeah, you're right. The spots fill up pretty fast, so there's this rush of, I want to be the first one to sign up for it.

David Kestenbaum

Iris sits at vaccination station number 2, or number 10. It varies, wherever they put her that day. She's in the Alamodome in San Antonio, this huge stadium where the Spurs used to play. I imagine them down on the court, but she's like, no, no, we're up in the hallway, where you get your beer and nachos. That's where they're giving the vaccines. Though somehow the word "vaccine" seems inadequate.

Iris Sanchez

I call it "the precious."

David Kestenbaum

You call it the precious?

Iris Sanchez

I call it the precious. So let me tell you about the precious, if everybody wants to know about the precious. I call it the precious because it's just so precious. So you have people in the drawing room in what we call the pharmacy. And there's this black curtain, and it says Pharmacy. And you can't go in there. It's like the Wizard of Oz.

And they have people actually drawing up the vaccines. And they put them on a little tray, and then they're covered with this drape. And then they lift up the little drape, and you have all these little precious vaccines on there. And you get to pick one, and then you have to put it underneath the drape on your table.

And so people would say, why are you hiding the vaccine? Why don't you want me to see it? And it's like, no, it's just it's very light sensitive, so we have to keep it covered so it can be asleep until it's ready, and then I'll give you your vaccine. I said, but look, it's here. It's right there. You are getting a vaccine today.

David Kestenbaum

Pfizer, for the record, says that once the vial has been thawed, it is OK to expose the vaccine to room light. People are nervous about getting vaccinated, not because they don't want to be protected against the deadly disease. It's so much simpler. They don't like needles. Iris has a whole strategy for dealing with that.

Iris Sanchez

You just tell them, don't look. Just don't look. And I talk to them. I'm like a little chatterbox. I'm like, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, OK, we're done. And they're like, oh! Because I'm distracting them, so they're like, this woman won't shut up. But there is a reason for my madness. You just talk, and you're distracting them because they're like, she's going to shut up when she's ready to give me the shot, so they're not expecting it. And then bam, there you go. It's done.

David Kestenbaum

Iris volunteered to do this. She's not getting paid. Her full-time job is in endocrinology, so a lot of patients with diabetes. It's been a rough year. One of her favorite patients died from COVID. In this moment, when people get the shot, it can be intense. She only spends a few minutes with each person, but people tell you stuff.

Iris Sanchez

I had this young man. He was in his 40s, and he came in for the vaccine. And this was on a Tuesday. And he said, my parents are really happy that I'm here because my brother just died on Friday from COVID. He didn't make it. So my parents were just so sad, and they're just happy that I'm here because they don't want to lose their second child. Because if I die, then they don't have any more children. That was sad. That was really sad.

David Kestenbaum

Oh my god.

Iris Sanchez

In the 40s, gosh, yeah.

David Kestenbaum

The man told Iris it was his parents who had actually gone online to sign up, but they could only get one appointment. And they decided he should have it. They thought it was more important that he get the shot. He qualified because he had an underlying medical condition. The guy showed a picture of him and his brother. He'd made it the home screen on his phone.

Tobin's mom, who you heard earlier, Vivian Low, told this story about a different family.

Vivian Low

So I had this woman who came in who brought her mom in. And I looked at her health questionnaire and she had answered no to everything, that she never had an allergic reaction. She wasn't on any immunosuppressants. All the answers were no, and so I said, great, let's give you your shot. And so, I actually delivered the vaccine. And as I was already injecting it into her mom's arm, her mom said, well, I'm glad that's over, because man, I had a really bad reaction to that flu vaccine.

Tobin Low

Oh, no.

Vivian Low

And I said, you had an allergic, an anaphylactic reaction? I said, were you hospitalized? Oh, yeah. And then the daughter just jumped right in and said, mom, it's fine. You were fine. This is irrelevant information. You needed this vaccine. You got this vaccine. The daughter was so intent on protecting her mom.

David Kestenbaum

Iris has had uncomfortable situations, too. Like, this one guy had gone online, managed to get an appointment, but he wasn't diabetic. He didn't have a heart condition. He wasn't over 65. If there's any reason she can find to legitimately give someone a shot, she wants to. And sometimes she gets people in by asking their height and weight to see if their BMI is 30 or over. His was 29.5. She rounded up.

Iris Sanchez

So in his case, he was obese. He was an overweight. He was obese, so that's why I qualified him for the vaccine. And I like to say, I'm not trying to offend you, but you qualify. And they're like, it's OK. For once, I'm happy to be overweight because that means I can get the vaccine.

David Kestenbaum

There can be an intimacy to this moment of getting the shot, I think because there's a way in which getting the shot is like passing through a portal-- out of this awful year. This other nurse, Amy Caramore in New York, told me she feels that way with every single shot.

Amy Caramore

I say, are you ready? I always say, are you ready, which is a little bit-- which isn't just about, are you ready for me to put a needle in your arm, but is more about, are you ready for this?

David Kestenbaum

It's like, are you ready for the new world?

Amy Caramore

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Is that what you mean?

Amy Caramore

Yeah, are you ready for something different? And here we go.

David Kestenbaum

We actually have a recording of someone getting a shot that kind of captures this. We put a mic on Tobin's mom out in California. This man, James, gets sent to her. He'd gotten there way before his appointment. They go over the paperwork. Date of birth-- he's 82. Old, he says.

Vivian Low

All right, just relax this arm. There you go. You're great. You've gotten flu shots before?

James

Oh, yeah.

Vivian Low

Yeah, so this is just like that.

James

Uh-huh.

Vivian Low

That's it. You glad it's over?

James

[LAUGHS]

Vivian Low

Woo-hoo!

James

Oh, boy.

Amy Caramore

I had a young woman, and as I was going over the instructions, as I was going over the consent, she just burst into tears.

David Kestenbaum

Again, Amy in New York.

Amy Caramore

And I put my hand on her shoulder, and I said, are you OK? And she just said, I just am having a lot of feelings. I've just been so worried. It's like the tension has been so taut. It's been so tight, and everybody's been surviving with that. And then, we sit down in this moment together. And it's like, snap. But it's a big force. It's like, if you let go before, then everything was going to fall apart. The whole world was going to fall apart. And if you let go right now in this room, maybe not.

David Kestenbaum

All the vaccinations end the same way, she says. After people get their shot, they have to go to an observation area, just to make sure they don't have an allergic reaction.

Amy Caramore

It's funny because you're walking in-- I walk my person, right? Because I'm not going to just send them down the hall and say, good luck now. We just did this big thing. So I walk my person to there, and they go-- usually a big smiley person at this point, right? Because they're like, they survived the moment, you know? And they go walk into a room, and then the room is just a bunch of people sitting six feet apart, texting on their phones.

David Kestenbaum

Welcome to the afterlife.

[LAUGHTER]

Amy Caramore

Yeah, it's exactly as you remember it-- a bunch of people sitting.

David Kestenbaum

On their phones.

Amy Caramore

On their phones texting.

David Kestenbaum

We really should change that, she says. Fill the room with balloons-- something.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is senior editor of our show.

Act Two: Penny for Your Non-Thoughts?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Penny for Your Non-Thoughts. We were talking here at the show about the theme of today's program-- what lies beneath the surface. One of our producers, Lilly Sullivan, mentioned something that a bunch of us know quite well-- that she wonders what happens beneath the surface in the mind of one of her friends who also works here at the radio show. Over the years, she has talked to a number of us on staff about this. She's read articles trying to better understand. And finally, just this past week, once and for all, she tried to get to the bottom of it. Here's Lilly.

Lilly Sullivan

Diane and I have worked together for four years. We started at the show at the same time. We were the junior staffers. And we became the kind of work friends where we had neighboring offices, so we'd overhear everything through the walls. We'd go into each other's offices, close the doors, pull down the blinds, and talk. We'd always sit on the ground because-- I don't know-- chairs felt weirdly formal.

And then one day, she told me this thing. She said, I don't introspect hardly ever, hardly at all-- meaning she spends almost no time looking inward. She doesn't really think about herself, her thoughts, her feelings about the world almost ever. This got so deep in my head. To not introspect-- I didn't even know that was possible, as if there's a menu somewhere of ways to be. An introspection is just an option that one could choose or not choose. I didn't even know there was a menu.

And how could it be true? I would watch her, confounded. Diane says insightful things. She's considerate-- always considerate, by the way, exceedingly. And I'd think, how did she anticipate those needs? How did she have that insight? She doesn't look inside. I assumed we were misunderstanding each other, that she must introspect. She must reflect on all sorts of things. She just doesn't use the word "introspection" to describe it. We're probably doing the same thing. We just don't categorize it the same way. Diane says, no.

Diane Wu

Well, since you started asking me about this, I've been thinking about it, you know? And I knew we were going to talk about this. So walking into the grocery store the other night, I was walking in, and I was just like, what would I be thinking about if I were introspecting right now? And I had no idea.

I was like, what could you possibly think about besides, there's some red shopping baskets. I'm going to take a red shopping basket. Oh, this is a spinach mix. Is it just spinach, or is there kale? That's literally all that's going on in my head. I can't imagine what else you could be thinking about. But I was like, I feel like I know if you are an introspective person, you could be, like, lost in your thoughts. But I just can't be in the grocery store.

Lilly Sullivan

Here's what I think about at the grocery store. I think, there's a red shopping basket. Should I get a basket or a cart? I don't like the rickety ones. I can't imagine shopping for a big family. I wonder if I'll ever have a big family. That ship has probably sailed. It must be expensive. Why did my mom always ask the person bagging groceries to help her to her car? Whatever happened to Volvos? I bit that hole in the headrest of her Volvo when I was five. Or was I four? She was so sad. Why was I like that?

Is that guy looking at me? Is he mad? What's he mad about? I wonder how much that cashier makes? Are people nice to her? It must take a long time to memorize all the codes to the produce so you don't need that sheet anymore. I'd be bad at it. Do people ask her if it's hard? Would she like that question or find it rude?

A lot of my thoughts are just imagining other people's thoughts and feelings, all tangled up with my own. It's probably like 95% of what I think about. Diane says she doesn't do that-- at all. And one of the reasons I believe her is that she remembers the moment that she first realized that her brain works this way. She told me that thinking about one's thoughts, or not thinking about them-- she was 24 before she realized it was a thing at all. She was reading a book of essays by a doctor.

Diane Wu

There was a story about a girl or young woman who almost died of flesh-eating bacteria from walking on some grass. And I immediately started panicking that I was going to get a flesh-eating bacteria also, which is not how I usually operate at all ever. And I burst into tears and was really upset about it. [LAUGHS] And my ex was like, what's going on? Are you OK? And I was like, I just am worried that I'm going to die from flesh-eating bacteria. And also, my parents are going to die one day. It all just came rushing out.

And I was really upset about it, and he was like, oh, wow, you don't spend any time at all thinking about this usually, do you? And I was like, no, it's just something that reading this book made me realize that I'm going to die one day, and so are my parents. And I don't feel good about it. And he was like, oh, well, maybe if you were more introspective, like you took a couple of minutes every now and then, you wouldn't end up bursting in tears.

Lilly Sullivan

After that, Diane would occasionally try to force herself to sit down and introspect. It always felt hard, she says. Kind of fake and boring. And let's just dispel this categorically-- Diane is no dummy. She's incredibly focused. You can go to her with a big, complicated story, and she can hold the whole thing in her head, immediately get how everything's connected. She also happens to have a PhD in inorganic chemistry from Stanford. So she's not one to name drop.

I asked Diane if we could try to do a rapid response game. I wrote up some of my burning questions.

Lilly Sullivan

Just answer quickly, yes or no.

Diane Wu

Oh, fun. OK, I'm ready. OK.

Lilly Sullivan

OK, here goes. If you see something, does it pull up other random associations and memories?

Diane Wu

Sometimes. Rarely.

Lilly Sullivan

And then does that memory lead to other random memories that then start coursing through your head?

Diane Wu

No, just if I have one, it'll just be the one. It'll hang out there for a little bit.

Lilly Sullivan

OK. Do you spend a lot of time feeling just mildly guilty or mildly regretful about a thing you said a few minutes ago?

Diane Wu

No, I don't.

Lilly Sullivan

Hmm. Do you think about your opinions and why you have those opinions and whether you actually should have those opinions?

Diane Wu

Oh, wow. I feel like I don't really-- this is not going to sound good, but I don't think I have that many opinions. Or if I do, they're not strongly held.

Lilly Sullivan

This did not help me get it. It confirmed for me that she doesn't think about all the things I think about. But I still didn't get what she thinks about instead. What is going through her head? And I understand how stonery this all sounds. We tried to describe to each other our experiences of consciousness. Sorry, everyone. First, me.

Lilly Sullivan

I think it feels more like a washing machine of thoughts jumbled up, and I'm jumping from one thing to another, but it's just all in there, mixed together, going and going all the time. Does that feel familiar?

Diane Wu

Not at all. I think it sounds like you. But I don't think it sounds like me.

Lilly Sullivan

OK, I feel like-- so can we, like-- could you try to think? And, like, if you had to describe what it's like-- because when I was thinking about this, I was like, oh, I wonder what appliance Diane would be. If you were to think for a second about--

Diane Wu

Of what it feels like inside my head?

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah. Do you have any sense of--

Diane Wu

I mean, the first thing that comes to mind is, I feel like a video camera that's just pointing to different things in the world. And it goes in. Most of it doesn't stay very long and goes right back out.

Lilly Sullivan

Wow, OK. And the thing that it's pointing at, is it pointing at thoughts in your head, or is it pointing at actual things in the world?

Diane Wu

The actual things in the world-- very literally, like if my eyes were a camera.

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah. So the video-- so do you just mean your eyes?

Diane Wu

It's like-- yeah, I think it's like, I spend 90% of my brain just taking in the inputs and--

Lilly Sullivan

Wow.

Diane Wu

It's really-- I mean, even in quiet moments, which I feel like I've had a ton of lately, I just end up staring out the window. And I'm not thinking about anything. I'm just observing the world around me.

Lilly Sullivan

Huh. Is it nice? What does it feel like?

Diane Wu

I think before we started talking about all of this, I thought it was bad. I thought there was too much space in my head that was going to waste or something. But now that we've been talking about it, it is nice to have room. I feel like it lets me-- I feel generally sensitive to the world around me and to other people. And I think it's actually kind of nice that there is room to let the world in.

Lilly Sullivan

It was like I had thought all humans were land creatures and that I kind of, more or less, understood our species. And then I found out that there are people who live in the ocean instead. And I know that I'll never live in the ocean. But now that Diane's explained it to me, put what's in her head into mine, I can imagine it. I spent the weekend just moving my eyes around my apartment, landing on different objects, just blinking.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan and Diane Wu are both producers on our show. Coming up, what lurks beneath the surface of a sunny California afternoon if you had the kind of job that lets you see it. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: One if By Land, Three if By Sea

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, What Lies Beneath. We have stories of stuff that is usually hidden from view coming to the surface. We have arrived at act three of our show. Act Three, One if By Land, Three if By Sea. So it's a conceit of a certain kind of story that, in one day, you can glimpse the entire world. This next story is kind of like that. Somebody catches a glimpse of something bigger in just three hours of a typical workday. Producer Dana Chivvis tells the story.

Dana Chivvis

A few weeks ago, I was calling around, talking to paramedics and EMTs in California. At the time, COVID cases had skyrocketed, and I wanted to see how the first responders were doing. I talked to this one guy, Sam Gebler. He's a firefighter and paramedic in San Francisco. And he told me the story. It actually happened back in August, all in one day, one of those perfect sunny days. Tons of people were outside that afternoon, enjoying the weather. And Sam was looking down at a woman who was caught on a cliff.

Dana Chivvis

Where was the woman?

Sam Gebler

She was probably 250 feet down the cliff. And it was kind of one of those things where she was standing-- it wasn't super steep. She could stand in balance, but there's no way to get down there. Honestly, to this day, I don't know how she made it down that far in that spot. It just didn't make any sense. And she had some scrapes and bruises on her, so I'm assuming she fell at some point and just happened, instead of rolling down the cliff into the water, she rolled on to this fairly flat spot with a rock to hold onto, which--

Dana Chivvis

Wow.

Sam Gebler

--was incredibly lucky because, with her in that state, there's no way she would have survived if she went into the water.

Dana Chivvis

How far down was the water from where she was?

Sam Gebler

Probably another 50 feet.

Dana Chivvis

The woman looked fairly young, late 20s, early 30s. And she was in a state like maybe she'd hit her head, or she was intoxicated. It wasn't clear. She wasn't answering questions. Sam's fire station covers an area of the city that includes beaches, Golden Gate Park, and these cliffs west of the Golden Gate Bridge, where people go hiking. So Sam and another firefighter put on face masks and harnesses, clipped into ropes, and lowered themselves down to her. When they got there, the woman was clearly in distress, but not because she was stuck on the side of the cliff.

Sam Gebler

I remember her saying a lot about how COVID has taken everything from her, and this disease is messing with her mind. And she doesn't know what to do and just being so overwhelmed at whatever-- I didn't ever get specifics of what she was doing before COVID or what her life was like, but she just kept saying, this disease is messing with me. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't have any reason to live, just all this crazy stuff. And in your mind, you're like, man. I mean, this is crazy, what it's doing to people.

Dana Chivvis

They put her in a harness and clipped her into the ropes. The rescuers up above started hauling the three of them back up the incline. But the woman was grabbing onto the rope, which is the intuitive thing to do when you're hanging off the side of a cliff, but it's actually really dangerous. The thing you're supposed to do is lean back, trust your harness and the ropes to hold you, and let your rescuers haul you back up. She wasn't doing that, and she wasn't in the right state of mind.

Sam Gebler

And so you're fighting this person to not climb up the rope, but to also walk their legs up the cliff.

Dana Chivvis

Right.

Sam Gebler

It's incredibly difficult with someone who isn't really able to follow commands. I mean, you're basically like a therapist at the edge of a cliff on a 250-foot cliff, trying to treat this person enough to get her up the cliff without getting yourself hurt. I mean, it's really--

Dana Chivvis

Oh my god.

Sam Gebler

Yeah, it's kind of crazy. There were multiple times when I was getting frustrated. And I just needed to stop and calm myself down and look back and like, oh, wow, that looks really cool. And then, OK, all right. All right, stop talking about that. We're going to do one foot in front of the other now. [LAUGHS]

Dana Chivvis

One foot in front of the other. Trust your rescuers, or you might fall backwards off a cliff. It feels applicable to all of us right now, trying to make it through this pandemic. It worked for Sam and this woman. With a lot of effort, they made it back up the slope. They put the woman into an ambulance and started driving back to the firehouse.

Sam Gebler

And that's when we hear on the radio, stand by for the surf rescue.

Dana Chivvis

Someone had spotted three kids in the water at a beach nearby. They seemed like they were in trouble. The currents at that beach are really strong. They can be deceptive.

Sam Gebler

So he puts a U-turn on the street, and we start going back to the beach. So I'm peeling off my harness and dirty clothes and trying to get into my wetsuit. And I don't know if you've ever gotten into a wetsuit, but it's kind of difficult, especially when you're sweaty. It's sticky, and you're in the back of a fire engine that's driving code three to the beach. It's quite the spectacle. So we show up, and it's just a sea of people. I've never seen this many people at the beach before.

Dana Chivvis

It's a nice day during a pandemic. There's nothing else to do but go outside. Sam told me when paramedics see crowds like that, they know they're going to have a busy day. The road is high above the beach, and from there, Sam can see three little dots in the water. He makes a mental note of where they are.

Then he and about seven or eight other firefighters hop into the back of a special pickup truck for surf rescues. It's got lifesaving equipment like surf boards on it. And they drive down to the beach. Sam heads straight into the water, but from there, he can't see the kids anymore. The waves are too high. So he starts swimming in the direction of where he'd seen them from above.

Sam Gebler

I didn't realize that as I was getting into the water, that my captain, who had gotten to a higher perch, was screaming at us to not go in the water.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, really?

Sam Gebler

I didn't realize that he was yelling at us. And luckily, I didn't hear him because I might not have gone.

Dana Chivvis

Why was he saying don't go in the water, though?

Sam Gebler

He saw how far out that the people had gotten sucked out into the channel, and he thought it was too dangerous for us to--

Dana Chivvis

I see.

Sam Gebler

--go out there. It was too far of a swim for us. So I swim out there. And the first person that I see is this kid, who he looks like 13, 14, maybe 15 years old. And he's bobbing up and down by the rocks. It looked like he was trying to get out. And I'm like, hey, are you OK? And he said, ah, I'm stuck. It's like, OK. Grab onto this. We throw him a little floaty device that we swim with, like the things you see on Baywatch that the lifeguards carry.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah.

Sam Gebler

So we throw him the device and pull him away from the rocks. And I'm like, hey, what happened? And he's like, oh, these two girls were in, and I tried to get in to help them out. And I was like, oh, so there are two more people. He's like, yeah. I was like, OK, where did they go? And he's like, they went that way. So he just pointed out--

Dana Chivvis

Which way did he point?

Sam Gebler

He pointed to the open ocean, and I couldn't see shit. So I'm like, OK. Now I'm calculating in my mind, I can't see where these people are. I've got one patient with me. I can't just leave him. What do I do?

Dana Chivvis

Two other rescuers swim up at that moment and take over. They may be 100 yards out at this point. Sam starts swimming into the open ocean. He's swimming and swimming and swimming. He's getting tired, a little scared.

Sam Gebler

And now, I'm like, man, I'm getting pretty far out here and thinking about trying to make it back in. And then I see one of my co-workers, who is a really good surfer and a good swimmer. And he's booking it on this surfboard. And I figured, obviously, he can see something that I can't, and I just change my angle to that line. It was him and another guy out there. And we all kind of get out there, and they found the two girls. So, one of them was in the water, still with their head above water. She was treading water OK. And the other one wasn't there anymore. And one of them reached down and grabbed her as she was sinking underwater.

It's a very weird situation because you don't know how long she's been under. So you just have this fear-- not fear, but this picture in your head of how bad it could be.

Dana Chivvis

The girl's lips were blue. She wasn't breathing, wasn't conscious.

Sam Gebler

And we pull her onto the board. We have this technique where we flip them onto the board and so she's out of the water. She's on the surfboard, the rescue board. And she's not breathing. We do some-- trying to do CPR in the water when you're just--

Dana Chivvis

Geez.

Sam Gebler

--treading water is ridiculous. It's not very effective.

Dana Chivvis

So you and your friend are in the water, and she's on the board. And you're doing CPR from the water?

Sam Gebler

Yeah, we're trying.

Dana Chivvis

Whoa.

Sam Gebler

So it's really a team effort on having people stabilize the board while other people are trying to bob up and push down on CPR and then bob back down under the water. I mean, you're almost like--

Dana Chivvis

Oh my God.

Sam Gebler

--trying to propel yourself up out of the water to try and get some leverage and do some effective CPR.

Dana Chivvis

CPR, after all, involves pressing down hard on someone's chest. But they're not above her. They're in the water next to the surfboard, bobbing up and down.

Sam Gebler

Yeah, you're out in the middle of the ocean-- not the middle of the ocean. But you're way, way far away from the shore. You can't see the shore anymore. And you're focused on the patient. You're like, all right, how do I get this person to breathe again? And somehow, she just started coughing up all that water. And I just remember the heaving, just the whole-- all the muscles just contracting and just the disgusting heaving and coughing of all this water coming up, up out of her mouth. And you're just like, holy shit. This is real.

Dana Chivvis

So now both girls are on surfboards. Sam says they were probably 1,000 yards out from the shore at that point, a current pulling them further and further from shore.

Sam Gebler

This is something I'll never forget, just sitting in the water there and having this person who I don't know vigorously cough into my face. And I don't have a mask on, and she doesn't have a mask on, because we're in the ocean. There's no mask in the ocean. And I just remember thinking, man. I really hope she doesn't have COVID.

[LAUGHTER]

And it's like, there's so many other things to be thinking about right now. Like, this person almost drowned, and we're still in a dangerous position. We're getting sucked out into the shipping lane. I can't see the beach anymore. I don't know where we are. I don't know who's going to come get us.

Dana Chivvis

Oh my God.

Sam Gebler

I'll try not to get eaten by a shark. I don't know.

Dana Chivvis

Right. Literally, right? There's sharks there.

Sam Gebler

Yeah, I mean, there's a ton of sharks out there, especially in the deep water, where we're getting sucked out to. And so, I'm just amazed at myself thinking about COVID in a situation like this, you know?

And I'll never forget looking over to my coworker. And we just kind of looked at each other as she's coughing in our face. And I can see it all over his face, too. And we just had that nonverbal communication, where we're both like, oh, damn.

Dana Chivvis

I can't imagine anything that's more pandemic 2020 than being swept out to sea in shark-infested water and still not being able to escape the anxiety of COVID.

Sam Gebler

Seriously, right? I mean, that was like-- we've had plenty of surf rescues and cliff rescues before, but this COVID thing is new. And it's the difficulty of calls and the stress of calls is much higher than normal. I mean, you could have had 30 calls a year ago. And it would be less stressful than having 15 calls in this new COVID era.

Dana Chivvis

The kids were OK, by the way, and Sam didn't get COVID. But for so many of us, the specter of COVID is always peering over our shoulders, intensifying everything we do, from the most extreme activities-- the surf rescue, a cliff rescue-- to the most banal-- grocery shopping, a teeth cleaning. That anxiety is the ether we exist in now.

There is one thing that's given Sam some comfort recently-- the vaccine. A few weeks ago, he had his second dose. He said it lifted a lot of stress for him. Now he only has to deal with fires, sharks, cliffs, people who've stopped breathing-- you know, regular work stuff.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: Boiling Under

Ira Glass

Act Four, Boiling Under. So lots of things can go unspoken between family members, sometimes for years, sometimes forever. And we had this idea that it would be interesting to do a story where a parent talks to their grown-up kid about something the parent wanted to talk about for a while but never had. And we recorded a couple of these with different families. And the one that was the most interesting was this one.

Chris Gethard

This is weirdly-- I'm very nervous about this, dad.

Ken Gethard

I am, too, to a degree.

Ira Glass

This is Chris Gethard and his dad, Ken Gethard.

Chris Gethard

Because you and I don't really-- we have a really good relationship. We don't sit down and have personal conversations that often, though.

Ira Glass

Chris has been on our show now and then. He's a comedian. And his father wanted to talk to Chris about Chris's depression. Chris has depression. He's talked about it on stage and on his podcast. He did a one-man show on HBO about it, which makes his dad feel bad, probably because Chris is talking publicly about stuff that the two of them have never really discussed.

Chris didn't reveal his depression to his parents until he was in his early 20s and had an incident where he nearly died. And then a friend, more or less, forced him to tell his family. And his dad had questions about all that. Chris came into the studio having no idea what his dad wanted to ask about. And they sat down. And I don't know, maybe we should have expected this. His dad didn't just jump right in with the stuff that he wanted to talk about. That's too heavy.

Ken Gethard

Well, the first one is actually a question from mom.

Chris Gethard

Oh, OK.

Ken Gethard

Do you pray?

Ira Glass

Ken asked Chris about pro wrestling. He asked about sports.

Ken Gethard

And I'm just-- why are you-- why are you such an NBA fan, rather than a pro baseball fan?

Ira Glass

They talked about their old neighborhood in New Jersey. Ken told Chris how much he hates celebrity endorsements. Would Chris ever do a celebrity endorsement? Would Chris ever do a sex scene in a movie, a nude scene in a movie? This continued for an hour. And then finally--

Ken Gethard

Hey listen, there's a couple questions I definitely do want to hit. So let's go to them. I don't want to run out of time.

Chris Gethard

Sure.

Ken Gethard

So--

Ira Glass

And then Ken brought up Chris's depression. He wanted to know why Chris took so long to tell his parents about it.

Ken Gethard

Well, when you finally told mom-- and that was, what, towards the end of college--

Chris Gethard

Yeah.

Ken Gethard

--I guess that was?

Chris Gethard

Yeah, I think that was.

Ken Gethard

Absolutely floored us. I mean, we had zero clue.

Chris Gethard

Yeah.

Ken Gethard

And on one hand, we're like the guilt. We got to protect you. Why couldn't we see this? But on the other hand, it's like, why didn't he come to us? Even now, you're like that, Chris. There was something on the web a couple of years ago was something. This is what I look like on a bad day, when I'm feeling depressed.

Chris Gethard

Yeah.

Ken Gethard

And you said something to the effect, I'll tell my wife, I'll tell my brother, but I'll never let my parents see me like this. And that was after we've known. So even then, now, it's like sticking out there.

Chris Gethard

Yeah, I don't know why. I don't know. I guess, it would make me feel like I was letting you guys down in some way or failing in some way. I don't know. I don't know.

Ken Gethard

Yeah, but mom and I would be the first two there to help you and do whatever it took to--

Chris Gethard

I know.

Ken Gethard

--protect you.

Chris Gethard

I don't know why I've never been comfortable with you guys seeing me like that or knowing that side of me so well. But I just felt like it was a thing to hide. I don't know. I don't know why. I don't know why. Because you guys did-- as soon as I told you, it was like everyone went into this mode where I was so supported. And I had always assumed that if I ever told anybody about it, I was going to be on my own. Whereas when I kind of hit rock bottom and started talking to you guys about it, it was like instantaneously the safest I ever felt.

Ken Gethard

Yeah. Well, I'm glad you felt that way, but I hope you understand where I'm coming from on this, too.

Chris Gethard

Yeah, no, I wish I talked to you guys about it sooner. I wish.

Ken Gethard

And you did a fantastic job of hiding it from mom and I, which I have all amounts of guilt over--

Chris Gethard

No--

Ken Gethard

--till my dying day.

Chris Gethard

--you don't have to. You don't have that many guilts over that. I mean, I was so good at hiding it, so good at hiding it. And I don't know why. I don't know why I never let you and mom know about that. It's just not my instinct. My instinct is that that's going to worry you guys so much, and you're going to have to sit around and then be scared about me, and I don't want you doing that. And I always figured maybe I could push through it, or it would pass. Or even I felt like maybe I'm just a moody kid.

Ken Gethard

Yeah, if you're feeling bad, you need help and stuff like that, Chris, I would like you to come to us at any point in time. But I'm not a professional. I don't know what to tell you. I don't know if I'm making sense. I want to be there, but I don't want to tell you something wrong either. That's always in the back of my head. It's like, oh God, if he comes to me-- you know.

[LAUGHTER]

Am I going to tell him something, and all of a sudden, he's going to be worse?

Chris Gethard

Yeah.

Ken Gethard

I'm scared. I don't think I want you coming to me-- dad, I'm upset. I need you to talk me. I wouldn't know what to say. That's what you have a professional for, you know? And it's-- does that make sense anywhere there?

Chris Gethard

Yeah. No, because I know that. I know that's the truth. I know that's the truth. I know you're not the guy to talk about that. It's part of what made it very hard to say it. But it doesn't-- I think I let that fear make me not talk to you about it. Whereas what really happened is exactly what I should have known you would have done, which was you're not the guy to talk about it, but you're certainly going to make sure that I find the person--

Ken Gethard

I'm going to get you to the right person, yeah.

Chris Gethard

You're going to get me there. You're going to-- I mean, that's one of the things I regret the most, is like, you're not the guy-- you were never going to be the guy who I could come to and say, dad, I'm really sad, and I don't know why. You weren't going to know what to say, but I should have given a lot more credit to knowing you were going to run through a wall to get me where I needed to go.

Ken Gethard

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Chris Gethard and his dad, Ken Gethard. Thanks to them for agreeing to have this conversation on tape. The story first ran on our show a few years back. Chris is the host of the long running podcast, Beautiful Anonymous.

[MUSIC - "JUST UNDER THE SURFACE" BY VENICE]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Aviva DeKornfeld. The people who put our show together today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Tobin Low, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ari Saperstein, Alissa Shipp, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Senior editor, David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor, Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Gabriela Munoz, Christopher Brown, and the folks at El Camino Hospital for letting us record vaccinations, Mickey Capper, Adam VanGerpen, Dan Casey, Karissa Reinach, and Chuck Leung. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's lists of favorite shows, videos we've made over the year, links to our TV program, tons of other stuff there. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. In his early career, he was a writer in The Flintstones. They were scripting some lines for Bam Bam one day, and one of the other writers said, hey, how about this? Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Torey couldn't help himself, adding his little stamp to it.

Iris Sanchez

And then, bam, there you go. It's done.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "JUST UNDER THE SURFACE" BY VENICE]