My Top 5 Stories from This American Life

When I started listening regularly to This American Life, I’d just turned 17. More than six years and nearly 200 episodes later, the show has spawned a television series, two theatrical events, a spinoff series (Planet Money), and half a dozen careers. In honour of their 500th episode, the crew of the show decided to share their favourite moments of the show, while I decided to pick my all-time top 5 stories. While there are many more stories I adore, these are particularly special and I’ll never forget where I was and how I felt when I first heard them.

5. “Robyn’s Dad’s Story”

Episode 400: Stories Pitched by Our Parents (2010)

For their 400th episode, the creators of This American Life decided to run an entire episode of stories pitched by their parents over the years. They were an incredibly diverse bunch of stories, ranging from a twee song about the Erie Canal to an investigation into the legal concept of corporate personhood, but by far the most popular segment was the story of Robyn Semien’s dad.

As a teenager in car-crazy 1950s Richmond, California, the elder Semien developed an almost supernatural talent for electronics. How did he use this power? To power his car through a rotary phone dial in the steering wheel, of course! In the process, he invented his own locks, power windows, and ignition system. If somebody wanted to do something in that car, they had to go through him.

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4. Jar Jar Head

Episode 232: The Real Story (2003)

In 1999, America was peaceful and prosperous, and let’s be honest, a little crazy. The American dream was finally coming to a new generation, but after John Hodgman attended an advanced screening of The Phantom Menace, everything started to go wrong. In order to save his country, Hodgman embarked on an ambitious plan: to rewrite the first installment of the Star Wars prequels.

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3. The Motherhood of the Traveling Pants

Episode 475: Send a Message (2012)

One day in the 1980s, the daughter of a large Italian family was expecting to give birth any day when her Nonna made her a little pair of pants. Lo and behold, the baby was a boy. Later, when her sister was pregnant, Nonna made her a dress– and the baby was a girl. Pretty soon, brothers, sisters, and cousins all got in on the act, making a prediction on Nonna’s behalf and sending their expecting relatives either the pants or the dress.

Nonna’s long gone, and now those babies are having babies of their own, will the pants still work?

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2. The Invisible Man vs. Hawk-Man

Episode 178: Superpowers (2001)

Flight or Invisibility? Which would you choose? When John Hodgman first posed this question, he discovered a lot about the people who answered, that these superpowers were unique in their way to tap into people’s everyday lives, fears, and sense of right and wrong.

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1. Brooklyn Archipelago

Episode 307: In the Shadow of the City (2006)

In the mid-2000s, Alex Zharov was a teenage celebrity in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. Looking for adventure anywhere he could, he and his older friends took a boat trip around Jamaica Bay and became shipwrecked. Thinking he was going ashore, Alex swam to find help, only to end up cold and bloodied on a desert island– only a mile or so from the towers of New York City.

I heard this story wasting time in Social Justice class in January 2007, and decided to go out and do something like that. I’m still not back.

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The Beta Band – “Dry the Rain”

When: February 2009
Where: Taza, SF State University
Who: Kellen Sarver
Weather: Cold, Intermittently Cloudy

I was 19, and running behind schedule. Nineteen is such a faceless age, there’s nothing you’re supposed to do when you’re that age that you aren’t already doing. So I watched High Fidelity, a terrific movie that contains a scene that might be familiar to you dedicated readers:

And I enjoyed it so much that I decided to buy some of the music from the movie, so I listened to this song after trading a Kooks CD.

At SF State, we all share the same wireless internet, so if we were to make our iTunes libraries public, everyone could listen to them. I was one of many who did (and it would pay off later), but I spent a lot of time listening to the library of a girl named Kellen Sarver. I noticed she had some Kooks material I didn’t, and as I’d recently become able to listen to them again, I contacted her. We traded, I forgot exactly what I gave her, but she was satisfied. The stuff she gave me was disappointing.

Next: Love in the Nineties was paranoid. Love in the Noughties wasn’t all there.

Elliott Smith – “A Fond Farewell”

When: 27 March 2007
Where: Portable room 701, Bosco
Who: Several classmates
Weather: Well, let’s just tell the story…

“Is it Argentines or Argentinians?” Marc Meehan turned to ask me. Everybody called him Father Marc, and while he intended to come back to Bosco to teach, he was emphatic that he wouldn’t become a priest. Too bad, I thought, you’ll have to pay your own rent. Most priests had affairs off-campus anyway.

“It could be either,” I replied, “but if it were up to me, I’d say Argentine.” I always preferred shorter demonyms.

Bosco was on a block schedule, so all of our classes lasted an hour and a half. It gave us enough time to actually learn things, but just as often gave us ridiculous amounts of free time if we had a test. We had such a test in Mr. Rod’s algebra 4 class that fateful March day. It was raining as I listened to This American Life. The story of the journal of David Ben Gurion. Fearing for my lost memories, I began to play with the idea of not only keeping a journal, but giving myself the discipline to write reliably in it as he did.

Rod’s cell phone rang. There was no landline. “Okay,” he said, “we’re having a lockdown.” I was used to lockdowns from my middle school days as we were located next to the Motel 6 where Hunter Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But somehow lockdowns seemed more serious in high school. It’s a shooting, I thought, some psychotic freshman. And we began to formulate a plan to defend ourselves. But Bosco didn’t have a gunman. The reality was so thoroughly beyond our experience that we couldn’t imagine it until we saw it happen.

We looked out the window. The parking lot was gone, only a dark grey void. The raindrops on the glass became longer. Before long, single drops were stretching across the entirety of the plane. The heavy metal doors rattled, and a whole limb of the tree outside our portable slammed against us. Mr. Rod had us close the windows. I continued to listen to This American Life, and eventually they played this song.

Finally, some students came to tell us we could go to the next class. When we got out, there was a straight line of devastation across the campus. Bits of trees, cracks in buildings. I had been in the eye of a fucking tornado.

Contrary to popular belief, California has more tornadoes per year than any other state, but they are generally not very strong, seldom in populated places, and never on the top of a hill. And yet there we were. I went home, dove into my old middle school stuff, and pulled out the blank journal from the Renaissance Fair four years earlier, and started writing.

And I was going to need it, because the tornado was just the beginning.

Next: The drifting meaning of “loud.”