on the page magazine
issue no. 13 summer/fall 2006
unfinished business


A Conversation with Ira Glass

In March 2001, Ira Glass, host of "This American Life," the award-winning radio show distributed by Public Radio International, spoke to then-poetry editor Zoë Francesca on the topic of adult adolescence in a conversation that touched on success, obsessions, parental expectations, teenage passions, and tofu.

IG:   Adults and adolescence, or adults who are adolescents?

OTP:   It's just "adult adolescence."

IG:   Oh, adult adolescence! I suppose I'm simultaneously flattered and disturbed.

OTP:   I counted at least thirty-four shows on “This American Life” that touched on the idea. For example, the show where Dishwasher Pete allows his friend to pretend to be him on David Letterman. Someone once told me that my fear of success and my wish for success cancel each other out. And I think Dishwasher Pete is the same in that respect: letting someone else be you on a national TV show kind of cancels your success in a way. Do you think that being an adult is really about letting success happen?

IG:   If you're a certain kind of person it is.

OTP:   What do you mean?

IG:   I think there are a lot of us who don’t want people’s attention at the same time that we strive to get their attention. Actually, I think being an adult is learning not to be ashamed of what you want. And I think for a lot of us, it’s hard to admit even to ourselves what it is that we want. Much less to have other people see it.

OTP:   Some other people who I think exemplify adult adolescence are Keith Aldrich who changed his identity repeatedly throughout his life, and the substance abuser from “Stuck in the Wrong Decade” who remained at the emotional age of thirteen until he was forty, and even Dr. Sarkin who loses a lot of his adult brain for a while after his accident.

IG:   I think there are even more than that. There are a lot of people that we do stories about on the radio show who get obsessed with one thing to the detriment of all the other responsibilities in their life, which is a very adolescent thing to do. When you’re an adolescent you have the freedom to do that. There are a lot of people who are like that. I feel like I’m like that! The thing that I’m interested in is making the radio show. I’m not interested in a lot of other things that I’m supposed to be interested in.

OTP:   Right, but as adult that’s seen as “focus” whereas in an adolescent it’s seen as an “obsession.”

IG:   If you’re lucky as an adolescent, it’s also seen as focus. If you’re unlucky as an adult, it’s seen as an obsession.

I think being an adult is learning not to be ashamed of what you want. And I think for a lot of us, it’s hard to admit even to ourselves what it is that we want. Much less to have other people see it.

OTP:   I guess it depends on what it is.

IG:   I guess it does depend on what it is, but I also think my parents are waiting for me to grow up.

OTP:   They are? To get a real job?

IG:   To get a real job, to get a job that pays more money, to be married, to have children, to buy a home. The fact that what I like is being around my friends and having the radio project with the group of people who I do the radio show with. To me, I’m doing things primarily because they’re fun for me. And organizing my life around the principle of doing things because they’re interesting to me.

OTP:   Maybe you'll never have a midlife crisis.

IG:   Well, I’m at midlife and there is no crisis. No, obviously, no. I don’t think it would be possible. What would there be to have a midlife crisis about? I have what I want.

OTP:   In your 1996 show on Halloween you did a short piece on “Dark Shadows,” the ‘60s soap opera. And you said, “The main pleasure in watching a show like that is watching things mess up.” Why do we get pleasure from watching things mess up? Is it because we all want forgiveness for our own mistakes?

IG:   I think it’s partly because we want forgiveness. But contained in that idea is that we relate to situations where people mess up. And then it’s fun to see the seams in a product that’s usually seamless. And it’s fun to see the shabbiness of it, ‘cause we suspect that it’s all sort of … tawdry, and dumb. But it covers its own tracks so cleanly that you never get to see the set fall over. And so it confirms that suspicion in a pleasing way.

OTP:   In the show “Jobs That Take Over Your Life,” you said that you go through the five stages every week—about work—that people go through about death (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance). And I feel that way, too. Is this an indication, do you think, that we’re unable to make the transition to an adult perspective on work, which is supposedly the final stage, of acceptance?

Even things that are eventually, in the end, pretty good — they usually don’t get good until the last 10 percent, until 90 percent of the work is done. So in the .rst 90 percent, it really is just, “How is this ever going to be anything but sucky?”

IG:   I think it’s more subtle than that. I think it’s true, what you’re saying. But I think that somehow your explanation doesn’t contain the proper intensity! Of fear! That I actually experience and it sounds like you experience. Which is, that the thing that’s so hard about sitting down and getting to work—if it’s a job where you’re sort of trying to prove yourself, and you want what you’re doing to seem special to other people—is that it’s so intense. And it’s not because of a “not adult” relationship to work. It’s because the entire project of work is a project in a way that a teenager would take on. It’s completely done both as a labor of love and of proving oneself. And then once you enter into that territory, the stakes are so high, that it’s something you’re totally invested in, that it’s so easy to fail.

Because even things that are eventually, in the end, pretty good—they usually don’t get good until the last 10 percent, until 90 percent of the work is done. So in the first 90 percent of the work, it really is just, “How is this ever going to be anything but sucky?”

It’s completely amorphous, and you can kind of picture it in areas where it might come out okay, but really, things are not looking hopeful for a really long time. At least if it’s work that’s hard enough that you feel challenged by it. And so, given that, it’s just a different relationship to work.

OTP:   Do you think it'll give you an early death?

IG:   Do I think it’ll give me an early death? No, but I get compulsively obsessed with any job. When I was a temp secretary, which I was for a long time, when I was trying to learn how to write a decent radio story. I would work a couple days a week as a temp secretary so I wasn’t so broke. Oh, for a really long time. And I loved being a temp secretary. I was a great secretary. Because I was so compulsive. I was just, well, I’m just going to make this perfect.

OTP:   And did they keep offering you jobs?

IG:   Of course. Really, it was only until three years ago that I’ve made more money doing radio than I made as a temp secretary in my twenties.

OTP:   Sometimes adults behave like adolescents, or express adolescent yearnings. In the show “From A Distance,” Erika Yeomans is “in search of the miraculous.” She’s about to turn thirty, and …

IG:   I feel when someone says that “sometimes adults act like adolescents,” I almost feel there’s a kind of negative spin in that sort of thing. “Why don’t they act more adult?” But I feel that people who act like adolescents—they are the interesting people. Everything about being an adolescent, well, almost everything about it anyway, is the interesting thing about being a person. You feel you’re on a process of discovery towards something. And you have things that you really love and you organize your life around things you really love. If you’re lucky, and in a situation where you can.

And when I think about the writers I know who I’m close to, who I work with all the time, they all, there’s a huge part of them that is left over from when they were twelve or thirteen or fourteen that’s still completely intact. Really it’s unusual for you to find a writer that doesn’t have a huge part of themselves that’s still around in some form. I don’t know, it’s like a pleasure-oriented part of themselves.

OTP:   In the segment called “Tribe,” about the kids who were in the production of “Hair,” you described these adults skipping down the street toward you, surrounding you, and they were “joyous, curious, happy, and in love.” What fascinated you about that moment?

IG:   The emotional openness of it. There’s something really vulnerable about that. And then something really exciting about it, too. On its own.

OTP:   When I was mentioning Erika Yeomans, the things that we think of as adolescent—strong, passionate emotions that take us to strange or new places—maybe they are actually part of adulthood, but we don’t accept that, for some reason. We think, oh, we’re acting like an adolescent, or we’re acting like a teenager. Maybe we are really acting like adults and part of being an adult is also experiencing those feelings again.

IG:   I think that our picture of adulthood is organized around what adults are when they have children of their own. So, what you are when you have children of your own, and reasonably so, is that you’re not surprising. What you want to be for a kid, is you want to be reliable.

OTP:   Stable.

IG:   Yes. And people’s clothing changes, and their body changes, the stuff they surround themselves with when they have kids. For a good reason.

So I think you’re right. These generalizations are just stereotypes. That adolescents don’t tend to be that responsible and that adults don’t tend to have a sense of adventure. But obviously we all know adolescents who are very responsible, with no sense of adventure, and adults who are very irresponsible and do have a sense of adventure.

OTP:   In the “Teenaged Girls” episode where Cara’s boyfriend jumps on her back and she says, “Get off,” and then she says “Ira, kick his butt!” did you feel like an adult or an adolescent at that moment?

IG:   (laughs) An adult.

OTP:   What was your response?

IG:   I kicked his butt. I don’t remember, actually. For me in that situation, at that point, I knew them so well. But I’m definitely knowing them as an adult. It’s clear that I’m on the other side of a line.

I don’t think we have that many relationships that are really unresolved. I feel that in our minds we resolve them one way or another. We make peace.

OTP:   In the prologue to the show “Shoulda Been Dead,” the girl gang member is just being a snotty teen. She says she’s just giving the other girl shit, and the other girl pulls out a gun. And she realizes she could have died just for being snotty. Do you think teenagers today are afraid to act their age?

IG:   Well, I think there are certain specialized situations where they can’t act their age, but by and large even somebody like that is mostly acting her age.

OTP:   But all the media stories about violence and teens …

IG:   I tend to think those stories are a little exaggerated. The ones on teenagers, even your average Chicago street gang, it’s mostly kids who are acting like kids in a really familiar way. Cutting up and trying to impress each other. I just don’t buy that there’s that much of a tough kid world out there.

OTP:   Or more tough now than they ever used to be.

IG:   I don’t buy that, either. In certain parts of the city, kids are way better armed than they used to be. And that has real consequences that are horrifying. But seeing people when they’re hanging out with each other—they still seem like kids.

OTP:   Do you think there’s something about our society that deprives us of going back and resolving relationships with our old babysitters or friends? Like the Alex Blumberg story where he actually goes back and tracks down his old babysitter. I’m thinking that we get cut off. That we have these intense relationships as children or young people, with babysitters, teachers, friends. And then we move, or things change, and you never see or hear from these people again. I just wonder sometimes if not being able to follow through, as you move from adolescence into adulthood through these relationships, maybe it kind of keeps people back a little bit because those relationships are unresolved in some way.

IG:   I don’t think we have that many relationships, though, that are really unresolved. I feel that in our minds we resolve them one way or another. We make peace. Even if there was the babysitter you fell in love with, you decide pretty quickly after you never see her again that it’s okay if you never see her again. My mom’s a psychologist and I remember when I was a kid she said how one of the things in developmental theory is that as you get older, and move through each developmental stage up through adulthood, it’s not that we just leave the old stage behind. It isn’t possible, it would be like eradicating a part of yourself. You can’t do it. And what happens with certain people. ... Say it’s an army that’s advancing forward and you have to leave some soldiers back to hold a certain territory where they’ve been. And some people actually leave a lot of soldiers at some stage because there’s something unresolved, or something they didn’t get.

Like my girlfriend. She had just a really rough childhood. As a consequence of that there’s a part of her personality that can step forward, which is the way it was when she was really young, and it’s completely intact. Being an adult, she’s channeling a little kid, but there’s a part of her—and we all know people like this—there’s one side to her that’s like that. I love that. Because it’s like seeing somebody at all their different ages at once. I can really easily imagine her when she was young. And in another way, she’s completely grown up. Mostly, I have to say, she’s very, very grown up.

OTP:   One of my favorite sequences is Dave Eggers as the adolescent parent, reading about his dinners with Toph. And it reminds me a lot of my own parents, because they got married as teenagers. And so they love to tell the story of how the first few weeks or months of their marriage, they had ice cream sundaes for dinner every night. And I was just going to ask if you can remember doing something like that in the past week?

IG:   An ice cream sundae for dinner? Well, I go through phases where I’ll eat like an eight-year old who accidentally got his own checking account. There are periods where, up until just a few years ago, it was all Burger King and ice cream. I’ve gone through long, long stretches like that well into adulthood, well into my late thirties. Now it’s harder because I don’t eat meat, so it just totally cuts you off from most decent kid food.

OTP:   It's too serious. Now you have to eat tofu.

IG:   I’m not quite up to the tofu thing yet. I just end up eating a lot of hummus, in my experience. And no self-respecting child would ever choose that.

Ed. note: this interview first appeared in our summer 2001 issue.

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