May 12, 2004

This American Life

While the rain beat against our roof this past weekend, we passed part of the time by listening to selected episodes of This American Life. TAL is a program from Chicago Public Radio that enshrines American-slice-of-life moments that would traditionally be ignored -- interviews with normal people about ordinary things that happened in their lives that later turned out to be hilarious or profound (or often, both), and segments on historical or current events that you've never heard about before -- or, at least, not heard about from the perspective that TAL has to offer.

Everytime I hear This American Life, I think that it's just about one of the most perfect programs on radio. When we lived in San Jose, I actually didn't catch TAL on the air very often, because KQED broadcast it at some bizarre time -- but thankfully, the program has a very complete episode archive available over the net.

Our first listening choice, Desperate Measures, was a classic -- stories of people (and institutions) forced by seemingly impossible problems into trying out-of-the-ordinary solutions. The first segment was a story told by a therapist at a mental institution who had problems with a patient who thought he was the Terminator -- he kept breaking out because (like in the movie) he had to rescue John Connor; sometimes, he took other patients along.

Noboby could think of what to do with this guy -- until one day, the therapist remembered a story of another case, with a patient who thought he was Jesus Christ. His therapist sat "Jesus" down one day and said "so ... I hear you're a carpenter." "Jesus" admitted that yes, he was -- and so his therapist put him to work, building bookshelves for the hospital. In a few months, the patient was cured and out of the hospital -- and had left having learned valuable carpentry skills to boot!

This therapist turned over that story in his mind, looking for similar leverage he could use against "the Terminator". Finally, in a session, he asked the man:

"Are you really the Terminator, or are you Arnold Schwarzenegger?"

"How did you know? You're the only one who's figured it out!!"

. . . "Arnold" is then asked to take on his most difficult role yet: that of a cooperative mental patient -- a role that he pursues with gusto.

Other favorites:

  • Classifieds: this show follows the stories behind one day's worth of classified ads in the Chicago Sun-Times. The best segment is the last, where they assemble a band (including a punk guitarist, a jazz singer, a theremin player, and an electric violinist taking anger-management courses for twice smashing his violin in recording sessions) made up entirely of people from "musician wanted"/"band wanted" ads and record a cover of Elton John's "Rocketman".
  • The House on Loon Lake: The creepiest. A group of boys discovers a long-abandoned house, still furnished and completely full of the artifacts of one family's day-to-day life. It's as if the family just woke up one morning and decided to walk away, leaving everything behind ... or worse.
  • First Day: features the all-time TAL absolute-classic segment, Squirrel Cop. You'll just have to listen.
  • The Middle of Nowhere: the first segment is the bizarre story of the Pacific island of Nauru. Most of the island is destroyed by its inhabitants for financial gain -- money that they then turn around and lose by investing in a musical about the life of Leonardo DaVinci. Amazingly, things go even further downhill from there. The second segment is the narrative of a woman who's overcharged $946.36 by MCI, and finds herself descending deeper and deeper into a bureaucratic shadowlands as she attempts to fix the problem.
  • Lost In America: the best segment is the last one, where the editor of Found Magazine -- a publication made up entirely of writings and pictures lost on the street and found by others -- reads some of the items that people have found and sent to him. (Best item -- a letter discovered in front of a fraternity house (in Berkeley!), where a member tries to reassure a pledge that while their initiation rituals may be strange, they are not gay!)
Go listen!

Posted by Kevin at May 12, 2004 08:17 AM

I love This American Life--and was surprised to notice how many of those episodes I had heard! Thanks for sharing our love of NPR
Wendy and Marc

Posted by: Wendy KS at May 14, 2004 02:53 AM
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