Monday, March 26, 2007


It's official. I'm coming out of this closet, and announcing to the entire world via the World Wide Web: I'm a This American Life groupie.

(If you're totally clueless, I won't hold it against you. After all, the show was on for about seven years before I stumbled across it. But now you can no longer use ignorance as an excuse. Surf to and get with the program. Haha...the program. I kill myself sometimes!)

Some months ago, I wrote that I'd acquired a large number of mp3 files of past shows. The means are unimportant, given that you can listen to nearly every single show FOR FREE online (see aforementioned URL). And since that time, since that shady acquisition, I have listened to no less than four programs per week, going through nearly two year's worth of weekly hours filled with short story readings; expositions on common, everyday freakiness; tales of childhood wonder and lover's woes; of triumph and failure and fiasco...all padded and carefully packaged within the delicate confines of Ira Glass's soothing commentary. And all, no less, during my daily commute.

What is it that would make me give up my 89X morning shows? What is so wonderful as to knock aside winding down with Arthur Penhallow on the way home? Well, it's hard to explain. But I got some interesting perspective during a couple of theater visits.

The first time I stepped out of my radio with TAL was in Chicago, home of Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ, where TAL is made and broadcast from. I was sent there on business (my first trip; an extended journey of both distance and professional development...but that's for another post) and delighted to find that at 7:00 pm on my day of arrival, I would have the chance to listen to TAL live...well, not live, but as it was being broadcast on its home station. I was ecstatic. Nevermind that the reception in the hotel room, despite being a mere 12 blocks from Navy Pier, where the WBEZ offices and tower are located, was horrendous. I ended up listening via streaming media on the laptop. Which I can do from home, in the Detroit area. My enthusisam was unabashed.

This was an extremely fortunate night for me.

Turns out that, since I am usually working during the Detroit broadcast at 3 pm on Fridays, my TAL diet typically is composed of episodes a handful of years old. Yes, I have been downloading the podcasts as they become available, but figured I'd get through the old ones and then catch up with the new eventually. What I'd been missing is the announcement that the TAL crew WAS GOING ON TOUR, doing the show live in theaters across the country. Well, only six cities across the country, BUT STILL. And, as it turned out, their Chicago appearance would occur on my last night in the city.

O. M. G.

Of course I called Ticketmaster, the Chicago Theater, and all the discout ticket vendors I could find in search of a seat in the same room with Ira Glass, Sarah Vowell, David Rackoff, and Dan Savage, not to mention the hundreds of other fans that would be there. Allow me to digress further--nobody (NOBODY) else I know listens to this show. In fact, most people have never heard of it, and the ones that have sort of poo-poo it as artistic and/or liberal arts drivel. But finally, FINALLY, I would be able to talk about the show with other folks who enjoyed it at least as much as me.

If only there were tickets available. Technically, there were, but only in the wheelchair-accessible section of the theater. And they couldn't sell me those unless I, you know, was in a wheelchair. Which I'm not. I briefly considered the fact that the clerk on the phone didn't know me from Adam, and wondered where I might come up with a cheap or borrowed wheelchair for the evening...but that only lasted for about 0.0025647 seconds. I might occasionally search for illegal mp3 downloads, but I'm not that low. I conceded that I better listen to the new episodes more often, and decided to suck it up.

Pittcon came and went, day after day. I saw all the vendors and the technical folks and listened to all the talks and collected about a million pens and a laser pointer and a flash drive and some fake caribeaner keychains with little compasses and all sorts of coroporate convention swag. And then it was the last night. I rode the Metra back from McCormick Place and started walking. But not to the hotel. To the Chicago Theater. I just had to know if there were any seats--anywhere--that I might have.

Well, there weren't, but being that the show was a mere 3 hours away, they let me buy a seat in the wheelchair section.

What I can say about walking back to the hotel isn't exactly like floating, and what I can say about the few hours thereafter isn't exactly like being nervous, but I struggled to plan exactly everything. As it turns out, I didn't plan well for dinner and arrived way too early. But I got to stand there and listen to some of WBEZ's donors as they picked up their complimentary tickets, listened to a station executive talk about Ira Glass's reluctance to acknowledge his radio superstar status, and met a nice guy with bad teeth whose donor nametag said Ricardo Phillips.

The show was remarkable. I will not attempt to recount the flow of humor and emotion that flowed between the audience and the performers here; I will only say I should have written about it then. I met a very artsy woman with whom I couldn't quite connect, though we tried very much to be socially compatible. I visibly bristled her when I said that the value of art depends on its cultural context, and she recovered by saying she was a collector of professional jargon and asked me about the conference I had attended. She particularly liked the world 'spectroscopy'. An artsy friend of hers (who also bought his ticket that day and got in the third row...bastard) mistook us for a couple and his interest in me lasted only until he was told otherwise. But I still shook his hand and introduced myself. Suffice it to say I'm no social butterfly and never will be good at meeting strangers and treating them like old friends.

I won't forget the show for a good long time, hopefully not at all. The performances were just like on the radio, only read at a podium and microphone. Last Friday, bits of the New York show were played as the new episode (What I Learned from TV, #328), and a 4 minute film can be viewed here (though I don't know for how long). I laughed, I cried, and after about two hours, it was over.

What happened next was beyond expectation. As I was leaving, walking slowly past one of the doors into the theater, I saw Ira Glass come back on the stage. He was talking to some people on the side, who seemed to be waiting for him. Some seemed even to know him. I wandered back inside and watched, in a dumbstruck awe, while Ira had a conversation with a patron (who seemed to know something about Showtime). I stood only a few feet away. When they were done, I spoke up. I didn't know what was coming out of my mouth. I just said it.

"I just wanted to thank you," I said. And for what could easily have been 45 seconds as 8 minutes, I had a short conversation with Ira Glass. I had a short conversation with Ira Glass. I shook his hand, he asked my opinion on the excerpt from the TV show they were making, and he asked what I do for a living. For that brief few moments, were were buds, just like when he rides to work and home with me in the car every day, but I was doing some of the talking, too. And then he thanked me for coming, and I turned to leave. Only then did I notice there were a dozen, maybe more, people standing around there. Maybe they were waiting for the same chance to meet him, maybe they were just watcing. But they didn't even exist during that short conversation. Nobody else did. It was just me and Ira Glass in the whole room, and he gave me his full attention and was interested in what I had to say. And that made me feel incredibly good.

Of course I beat myself up for not saying XYZ, for actually allowing ABC to come out of my mouth, and for not paying more attention to the moment. I came to terms with the fact that I may have looked like an idiot, that he may have not actually thought I was best friend material, and all the other stupid facets of self-doubt one might go through after meeting a person one admires. And I was better for it.

So that's how that went. The entire evening, from stepping off the Metra to finding the open-late-deli walking back, was a whole package I will continually open and rewrap for myself.

My second foray into the flesh-and-blood world of This American Life was this weekend at Eastern Michigan University's Pease Auditorium. Ira Glass spoke on invitation of the Ypsilanti District Library. He was onstage all by his lonesome, and his talks were not specifically TAL-related. He talked about what it's like trying to succeed in the world of creative media, rules to set for yourself, roadblocks you should not sweat, and the marks of success, notably Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. I dragged my poor wife, who was coerced by the promise of a nice dinner and a hotel-night out, not to mention the tickets were only $10 and "I already bought two, so you have to come with me."

I was mildly skeptical that she might not enjoy the whole ordeal, at least until the show began, after which I believe that she would see the beauty of the experience. I was wrong. She was not in the least resistant to the plan, made overnight arrangements for the kids and enjoyed it through and through. She is an artist herself, a writer with talents that I, the aspiring amateur, struggle with even a basic understanding of. Things I can only express in clunky, mechanical prose, she sprinkles and dazzles into each nook and cranny of her dialogue and the overall harmony of her pieces. She laughed, she cried. So did I, but not just because of what Ira, my old friend, was saying, or the clips of his days as an NPR reporter, or the way he laughed at himself and allowed us to laugh along with him. I did so because not only had I experienced this evening which so fed my creative center, but I was sharing it with Nancy, and her center was being nourished, too, with the same spritual and emotional food. And that's something we too seldom ever experience together.

So now, though I'll probably remain the only TAL junkie in the house, both of us now share something I once believed I would only enjoy alone. Now when Ira or any of the other TAL personalities come to town, I won't be alone as I once feared. Now, it won't just be me waiting at the foot of the stage for the chance to thank a somewhat obscure, shy Jewish reporter for the way his interpretation of life has affected my own. Now I'll be doing it with a partner.

Now we're both groupies.

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