Starting around when I was thirteen years old, every Saturday at noon I would set up my dad's leather armchair in front of my parents' sound system, turn on my local public radio station, KQED, and recline as Ira Glass introduced my favorite show, This American Life. I would organize my Saturdays around this (these were the days before podcasts), and if a friend called me during my show, I would ask my mom to tell them I would call them back at 1pm. I would make plans around this Saturday routine, and my best friends knew this.
My favorite episode around that time was Act V, which focuses on a woman who directs Shakespeare plays in the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. A bunch of the prison's inmates are cast in Hamlet and just like in the outside world, they are the oddball theater geeks of their scene. Unlike the theater geeks I ran with, though, these guys drew on their experiences of violent crime and remorse that cut deeper than I could fathom. I was into acting and performing at the time, but I was self-conscious of the self-centeredness of saying I wanted to be an actor. For years when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I referenced Act V. I could direct plays in prisons; make art with people who truly needed the release.
By high school the TAL website started posting back episodes, and I would often listen to them to fall asleep. I had always loved it when my mother read stories to me at night as a little kid, and I never grew out of that. Too old to ask my mother to read to me, I would instead search for stories produced by Scott Carrier. Something about his voice relaxed me, and to this day I would recognize it anywhere.
In college, my friends and I decided to do a radio show on Barnard's station, WBAR. Our show was called, "Tricerabops to Top of the Pops," and it was very TAL-inspired in form. Every week we would venture down to the basement of Barnard's Millbank Hall where we would host our super-duper early morning two-hour slot. Instead of producing stories related to a theme, though, we would choose songs having to do with our chosen theme: we had a Seven Deadly Sins show, a Royalty show, a Mad Scientist show. Sometimes we would haunt the various libraries on the Columbia University campus, searching for strange readings to include. One of my co-hosts from "Tricerabops" still creates radio to this day over at WNYC.
I ultimately decided to be a Theatre major, and my thesis was a solo performance piece. For our solo performance class, we had to use found text, sound and movement, weave it together and create something new to perform all by ourselves. I decided to use the transcript of a TAL story that had fascinated me for years that I heard when I first started listening to the show as an adolescent: Infinite Gent from the Testosterone episode. Long before the "transgender tipping point," and nine years before Becoming Chaz, in 2002 This American Life produced an episode with a story about Griffin Hansbury, a trans man who describes in detail the effects that testosterone injections have on his transition from female to male. I first heard the episode when I was going through puberty myself, and the episode stuck with me as an explanation of the mysteries of male sexuality. Nearly a decade after first hearing the story, I used the text of Hansbury's interview and songs by Sam Cooke to create my thesis, "History/Biology: A Gender Remix."
I saw my idol, Ira Glass, at the Upright Citizen's Brigade theater in 2012, but I was too star struck to say hello. He was being interview by Dave Hill, who told the cringe-worthy story about a bottle full of piss that ended up in the Send a Message episode.
When my boyfriend and I started getting serious a few years ago and he would sleep over in my tiny Crown Heights apartment, squeezed in the twin bed together, I discovered that he liked to fall asleep to bedtime stories, too. I introduced him to TAL via another of my favorite episodes of all time, I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help. One of the amazing things about TAL is the massive breadth of stories that it has covered. My boyfriend is fascinated by military-related mishegoss and the "steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals," described in the Private Sector episode hooked him. He started out by listening to all of the military and police-related episodes and now he listens every week. A few weeks back we were discussing the Batman episode and its message about the huge impact of expectations on outcomes. He related the idea to the psychological impact of having a black president, and how that massively and fundamentally impacts the expectations of American kids.
How in the hell has This American Life endured and been so consistently beautiful for so many years? Maybe it's the fact that Ira (yes, we're on a first-name basis in my head) de-centers himself from the storytelling. Although the voice of the show is consistent enough to be mocked by the Simpsons, instead of one narrator every week telling stories from only his perspective, there are a multitude of voices and producers and angles that completely own their stories. And unlike other former-favorite radio shows that have broken my heart when I realized their biased and unilateral perspective (i.e. the RadioLab Yellow Rain debacle), This American Life will make an entire episode grappling with being wrong about something.
I most recently fell in love with TAL all over again when they lambasted the hand-wringing about vocal fry that has always seemed suspiciously sexist to me. That episode is an instant classic overall in my mind; how it deals with Lindy West speaking directly to one of her most hurtful troll commenters is revelatory. I've never heard trolls, a mainstay of being on the internet anywhere and everywhere, being covered in such a humanizing and emotional way.
As I write this, the next two upcoming episodes of TAL are set to deal with Eric Garner's death, a tragedy that has hung in the air of New York City and spread across the country since July. The weight of Garner's death has been like an anvil on New York; the context of countless conversations we've had. I can't wait to hear TAL's interviews, to fill out my own understanding and process what Esaw Garner's grief means for the rest of us.
When I walk and bike through various parts of New York, lines from TAL episodes pop into my head, my memory triggered to whatever episode I might have been listening to when I was last in that physical location. Dan Savage, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell: I met them all through TAL. Most of my friends listen these days, and the episodes have started a million conversations. Thank you, This American Life, for being the soundtrack of my life.