63 Episodes Later: This American Life

I’ve always been a late adopter.

I joined Twitter in April of 2012 (it even says so in my bio!) and Snapchat last May. I never did use Vine or Blab before they died and have yet to Facebook “Live.”

Podcasts were never my thing. During our long car rides between Missouri and Minnesota, Jake often played epic, four-hour podcasts about his favorite video game or sports team. Like a spell, they promptly put me to sleep. “Why would you want to listen to someone talk for hours?” I questioned, much preferring to listen to people sing.

This changed last week. On a whim, I played one episode of This American Life and proceeded to listen to 62 more.

Allow me preface this by stating that the office in which I’m temping is professional and quiet. My assignment consists of Googling stuff and entering data into a spreadsheet for eight hours a day.  People generally don’t speak to me unless I sneeze, after which, a chorus of voices shower me with “Bless you’s.” No one minds if we eat snacks at our desk or bring headphones, so I listen to a lot of podcasts and eat a lot of snacks.

All it took was one episode. 

The first This American Life episode I chose really had no significance. It was simply the first one I could figure out how to play on my phone. #502: This Call May Be Recorded. . . To Save Your Life chronicles journalist Meron Estefanos’ experience following a phone number connecting to a cellphone accessible by a group of refugee held hostage in the Sinai Desert. I felt my heart race as she investigated whether or not the situation was real, made connections with the prisoners, and raised money to set them free. I felt helpless as they described their great suffering and emotional when she met some of the people who escaped.

During episode #567: What’s Going On In There? I wiped away tears as I listened to Larry read a letter from his father who he always thought disliked him. A translator helped them communicate in Chinese for the very first time.  #597: One Last Thing Before I Go shares conversations people have with loved ones who died in the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in 2011. They speak over the “wind phone,” a phone booth connected to nothing, really, except for the wind. Tears formed again.

I felt ill listening Episode #522 discussing literal and figurative instances of communities tarring and feathering individuals in efforts to publicly shame them. And again, in #485: Surrogates as Amity Bitzel describes her abusive father and his attempt to redeem himself  by adopting a 27-year old man released from jail for murdering his parents.

I laughed a lot, too.

I snorted back laughter listening to Act Four of Episode #578: I Thought I Knew You as two podcasters test whether or not comic Todd Glass can really identify a U2 song. In episode #577: Something Only I Can See, comedian Tig Notaro demonstrates how her mother-in-law Carol can not tell this cheesy joke she made up without laughing hysterically. Notaro brings her onstage at her show to tell this joke, and I’ll be darned if you don’t crumple into a fit of laughter, too. It’s impossible to describe the hilarity of the situation in writing. You’d just have to be there. . . or listen.

Of all of the episodes that made me laugh the hardest, #61: Fiasco had me running for the door. Writer Jack Hitt describes a production of Peter Pan he witnessed in a small town, where everything seemed to go wrong in the most comical way. The performance is a complete fiasco. This episode just got to me. I conjured all of the self-control I did have (and dearly wished for) to stifle my laughter. I felt my shoulders shaking and tears starting to stream. After pausing Fiasco, I stood up and grabbed my purse, literally removing myself from the premises for an early lunch break to regain composure. 30-minutes later, I returned from Walgreens with a better set of headphones for my enhanced listening pleasure.

Some of the stories are just plain wacky. They highlight the exceptions, hidden realities, and oddities of, well, this American life. Or life, in general.

On Friday, I listened to a mind-blowing chapter of Episode #556: Same Bed, Different Dreams chronicling how Kim Jung Il kidnapped South Korean movie star Choi Eun-Hee and her ex-husband, director Shin Sang Ok, forcing them to live in a house together and create films for eight years. Episode #561: Abdi and the Golden Ticket taught me that the United States government offers a lottery in other counties where a small number of people can enter to “win” citizenship (only about 50% are actually given this chance after jumping though what sounds like a million hoops). I learned about Gad Elmaleh, a French comedian described as the French Jerry Seinfeld. He discusses what it’s like to be wildly successful in France and the struggle of achieving the same success with Americans  in Episode 596: Becoming a Badger. 

I’m already at 850 words and could go on and on.

Besides This American Life’s educational and entertainment value, the podcasts seems to run the full gamut of human emotions and experiences, the victories and traumas. The episodes feature people who have experienced or felt or seen things that you may have assumed you were alone in.

I learned things I never knew and felt things I usually don’t let myself feel. And, 63 episodes later, I realized that I felt less alone and awkward and weird.

As I began another section of the spreadsheet, a podcast ended.

Out of nowhere I sneezed. People exclaimed “Bless you” and then I pressed play.


  1. Katie

    i want to listen to the fiasco episode! it doesn’t look like the podcast app on my iPhone will let me have more than the newest 4 episodes though? i’ll have to see if my work computer lets me listen via the website. we have the weirdest sights blocked.

  2. Tony Conrad

    I’m a This American Life fan too… and recognized and had the same reactions to the episodes you mentioned as you had.

  3. Beth Ann Chiles

    I have listened to a few podcasts but never really “got them” but it is probably because I didn’t listen to these! They sound amazing. Thank you for introducing me to what sounds like a fabulous series!!! Yay for podcasts.

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