I noticed a connection between this Coca Cola recipe act and another episode of This American Life. Did you catch it?
The connection is Charles Salter. The old connection is episode number 413 and it is called “Georgia Rambler.” In this episode, Ira and the gang travel around Georgia collecting stories on the most interesting people they could find and this was all in the spirit of an old newspaper column called, as you may have guessed, Georgia Rambler. And, wouldn’t you know it, Charles “Chuck” Salter was the man behind the column. The connection I heard that was not mentioned is that the one time a suspected recipe for Coca Cola was published in a newspaper it was reported by our friend Chuck Salter. You can read more about the Georgia Rambler piece on my Summary of Episode 413.
I had some trouble getting on the TAL website earlier in the week and apparently I was not the only one. Ira said it has never happened before even though they are the biggest podcast in the world (mentioned here on The Atlantic). for the last few days I have only seen buzz about the Coke recipe so I guess it really lit up everyone’s curiosity. I’m not a big soda person but I am a big story person and I would have to say I was a little bummed out by this act. It was fun when they traveled to the Jones Soda Company in Seattle and the taste testing but other than that I couldn’t get into it. The act about the forged documents was pretty cool though.
Do you think the TAL crew learned about this story while making the Georgia Rambler piece and then decided to dedicate half an episode to just this?
Act One: Message in a Bottle by Ira Glass
Was the secret formula really a secret? He said that even if someone cracked the entire manufacturing process, which he said they’d have to do, and produced something very close, Coke has this whole other thing nobody can touch: “There’s a psychological element to this product. We’ve got 125 years worth of marketing and advertising and people’s memories.”
When I was five or six I remember eating breakfast at my Aunt Arlene’s house. She lived in a tiny bungalow built in the 1930s set right in the middle of a big lemon and avocado ranch. I remember running through the trees with my sisters, and swinging on her old wooden porch swing. Then we sat down at her formica kitchen table and ate piles of pancakes. I was in love with these pancakes. My aunt, in disbelief that this tiny girl could put away so many pancakes, started counting how many I ate. The final tally was 17. Maybe they were actually little silver dollar pancakes. I don’t know. I just remember playing in that orchard on a summer day and eating the best pancakes of my life.
The thing is, I have Arlene’s pancake recipe. It’s written in her own hand with her own cross outs and adjustments. I have the secret recipe. I’ve made it a few times, but I don’t make it anymore. It’s never come close to tasting the way it does in my jumbled memory. Because, of course, it wasn’t just about the pancakes.
Phil Moony, archivist for for the Coca-Cola company, knows that the nostalgia I feel over those pancakes is the bread and butter of Coke. He claims that the “original recipe” that Ira found in a 1979 newspaper clipping, is not the real original recipe. But even if it were, it’s not about to bring down the company anytime soon. Some recipes simply can’t be recreated. In a taste off between real Coke, and the “original recipe” recreated by TAL, one woman put voice to the psychological aspect that Moony described. As she tasted the real thing she said, “This tastes like my childhood.”
Some companies are so meticulous about their branding, and have been with us for so long, that it’s impossible to unravel the actual product from the marketing that has burrowed into our psyches. Coca-cola, Oreo, and of course Disney, have mastered this art. Even though these brands don’t necessarily mesh with my values now, I’ll still expose my future kids, because as the taste tester said, their products feel like my childhood.
Act Two: Ask Not What Your Handwriting Authenticator Can Do for You; Ask What You Can Do for Your Handwriting Authenticator.
We all want to think we can only be fooled by a genius.
As humans, we want to know the truth. Just look at the previous story about the secret Coke recipe, mysteries drive us crazy. We love the tension of not knowing only when resolution is promised. Damn you J.J Abrams and your endless ability to throw us just enough resolution to keep us engaged in the mystery. I don’t know about you, but at the end of Lost, I wanted every loose end tied in a neat square knot.
In this story about truth and deception, it was the seeming resolution of a decades old iconic mystery that brought down document expert John Reznikoff. John was very intrigued when his close friend, decorated military officer Lawrence X Cusack III (Lex), told him about his father’s career involving work with both Marylin Monroe and John F. Kennedy. Lex then revealed that his father had piles of papers that might be interesting, but he’d never gone through them. John practically begged Lex to find those documents immediately. When John found out that these papers included a document that detailed a settlement between JFK and Monroe buying her silence after an affair, he was completely shocked and elated. This was the holy grail of historical documentation. This would blast his career into the stratosphere.
Of course, you listened to the story and you know where this is going. After well-known investigative journalist Seymour Hersh started using the documents as source material, and after investors had put down over 4 million dollars for the papers, they were revealed to be fake in a Peter Jennings exposé.
The thing about humans is that we believe we want the truth so very badly, but when the truth does battle with our self-concept, we find ways around it. John’s self concept as a man who holds accuracy and authenticity as cardinal virtues was deeply threatened by Lex’s betrayal. John had failed at the work that had earned him his reputation. Instead of immediately admitting that his friend had deceived him, he concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory that allowed him to believe he had not been duped.
John made his living off of historical documentation, on establishing the truth of past events. He more than anyone lived in the tension that we all face, we want to know the truth, but we also want to live in a world that is stable. We want information, but not information that is going to shift the ground we depend on to hold us up.
It’s interesting to look at the unshakable truths in my own life. I can spot several pillars in my self concept and my understanding of the world that would absolutely flatten me if they were removed. We all have them, we have to. I read a blog post recently about a mother whose six-year-old son said to her as she tucked him in at night, “Sometimes I wonder if you and Daddy are actually evil and will kill me.” Kind of creepy, right? But he’s asking the question that we all end up asking: what if there is no truth?
Torey Malatia at 59:50 by Ira Glass
WBEZ management oversight provided for our show by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia. In the mail room this week I was surprised to find him opening a love letter he got from some random listener, “This was not unusual. I can’t tell you how many people have come forward over the years. I probably have three or four dozen examples of that.”
Marc’s interview with Ira can be found at http://wtfpod.libsyn.com/webpage/episode-117-ira-glass
I first brought up this podcast a couple of weeks ago and said that I planned to listen to it. Well, I’ve finally made good on that plan and I’m here to tell you a little bit about my general impression of the podcast.
They are trying to flatter each other
I’m not sure who started it but Marc tells Ira that he would never be able to create a radio show as polished as the one that Ira puts on. Ira then pushes back by saying that he would never be able to create a radio show that was as dynamic and intimate as the one that Marc produces. Ira also admires Marc’s ability to create coherent streams of consciousness that are good for the radio and are totally unscripted. And then I’m sure Marc said something else to put it all back on Ira. How do people stay as humble as these guys? It was very interesting to hear two successful characters admire each other face-to-face.
TAL-ify Marc’s story
I have seen Ira Glass tell about the secrets of good storytelling a few times before and he even tends to repeat himself but this time was a whole new deal. First, Marc tells a story about a woman he dated while he was going through his divorce and a strange mix-up he had with the woman and her husband. It really was an interesting story and then Marc asks Ira to walk him through the process of turning it into a This American Life story. My mind was blown when Ira breaks the story down into its fundamental pieces in just moments. In even less time Ira identifies what is missing from the story to really make it powerful and shocking. That must be the craft of This American Life!
Um like like like um like um uh um
Ira was amazing with how he broke Marc’s story down into a TAL story so quickly. But, I have never heard Ira use so many filler words like “like,” “uh,” and “um.” At one point he strung several of them together like it was no big thing and it really threw my mind off track. This is a general difference that Ira identified himself though. He didn’t talk about the filler words themselves but he did say that he is always reading from a script on his own show and he admires Marc for not doing anything like that. Of course we all love Ira but I’m surprised by this trait in him to use so many filler words.
I felt that the intro to this podcast was a little bit long but once the formalities were out of the way I found the material extremely interesting. We hear some new stuff from Ira Glass and Marc is a pretty good interviewer. I have to confess that I have about ten minutes left on the podcast but I am looking forward to it. There’s only so much I can listen to with a 5-minute commute and tons of homework
You don’t want your enemy to know that you’re not going to launch those missiles, but you don’t want to think for yourself that you are.
Oh the British. So quaint with their tea cozies, and just-for-show royal family, and handwritten letters of last resort with instructions on how to respond to a nuclear holocaust sealed away in a safe locked inside another safe. Seriously, the Prime Minister actually writes out instructions for the submarine commander in post-nuclear attack wartime. This practice brings with it a host of practical problems–who will open the safes if everyone is dead? What would stop the submarine commander from just making his own plan with all the authorities out of the way?
But beyond all that, there is the central truth of why countries even develop nuclear weapons in the first place: so that they have a credible threat of retaliation. The whole idea of nuclear weapons (for countries that aren’t ruled by insane dictators) is that if you blow up my country, I will blow up yours, so don’t even go there.
Journalist Ron Rosenbaum is a prolific writer on the subject of nuclear war. He discussed the absurdity of the letters of last resort with Ira, pointing out the fact that the very knowledge of their existence damages Britain’s credible threat of retaliation. Why would you let other countries know that there is this letter that may tell the submarine commander not to push the red button? As usual, Ira gets to the heart of the issue. You’d do it because you don’t want to believe that you’d do what you must claim to the world that you will surely do. Who wants to be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people after they are already dead? The letters of last resort acknowledges the paradoxical dilemma at the heart of nuclear warfare and lets the ambiguity rest inside the double walls of two safes. The letters let us believe that the right answers exist, they are just locked up, beyond our grasp.
Act One: Needle in a Crapstack at 7:32 by Jon Mooallem
The game is the same for everyone: you’re trying to get a sense of what you can see, to get a glimpse at what you can’t.
This is the kind of story that sticks with you. As Ira notes at the beginning of the story, there is 2.35 billion square feet of self-storage space in the US, 7.4 square feet of storage space for every man, woman and child. And when the owners of all that excess stuff stop paying for it to be stored, it gets auctioned off to people hoping to sell it on eBay and Craigslist at a profit.
This story was such an interesting profile on our relationship with stuff. We love to accumulate and hold on, but so much of what we hold on to matters so little to us. How many people pay the storage fees month after month, and never go back?
From an economic standpoint, these auctions are beautiful. People are no longer wasting their financial resources holding on to things that have no utility for them. Other people are taking that wasted utility and squeezing every last drop of value out of the piles of stuff by reselling it. It’s a big efficiency jump.
After I graduated from college I spent a year in El Salvador. I took two suitcases with me, leaving the rest of my accumulated possessions behind in my parents garage (they really appreciated that). At the end of the year, I had no idea what was in those boxes packed away in the garage. It’s was startling moment, realizing that 80% of my material possessions could disappear for an extended period without my even knowing what I was missing. I was fairly ruthless de-clutterer before that experience, but I’m completely heartless now. I want the things around me to be things that get used. I want them to be things I would miss if they were packed away for a year. I still have boxes and drawers full of stuff that I’m sure I would never miss if it disappeared, but I’m working on it.
Act Two: He Shapes Ship Shapes by the Sea Shore at 23:52 by Adam Davidson
He built this contraption using a protractor, some string, and a flash bulb.*
Adam Davidson. I love you man. Your work on Planet Money has taught me far more about economics than my college professors ever did. But sometimes, man, I feel like they either stick you with the boring stories, or you purposely seek them out.
This story about the underwater Byzantine archaeology work of Fred van Doorninck and George Bass is important and moderately intriguing, but I wish Adam (we’re on a first-name basis) had focused more on the friendship/working relationship of Fred and George, and less on the ship archaeology side. I thought they were totally charming, and I could picture them as incredible guest speakers in a history lecture. It’s just that…I don’t really care about what Byzantine ships looked like.
The great thing about TAL is that they tend to take subjects I don’t care about at all, and make me totally enthralled. But not so much on this one. I still think you’re awesome, Adam.
*My favorite part of the whole story. Damn, that is some incredible engineering right there.
Act Three: The Answer to the Riddle is Me at 36:02 by David MacLean
I was gathering information on this character of me all the time.
I remember the first time I heard this story back when it originally aired in 2010. I was on a run in my neighborhood. I slowed to a walk over the course of the story, completely absorbed by this haunting tale of memory loss. David MacLean wakes up in India with no memory of the journey that got him there, or who he is.
Before my grandma died several years ago, she suffered a severe mental break and was diagnosed with clinical depression. Looking back, a psychologist probably could’ve seen a few warning signs, but for our family the change in her was sudden and terrifying. One day she was organizing tours for her fellow retirees to India and Mozambique, the next she was a quivering shell of paranoia and tears. It seemed like her very self was gone.
David’s story felt familiar to the path I traveled with my grandma. It’s different in key ways–once he’s back in the context of his family he does recover rapidly. But the way that he somehow loses the very stuff that makes him who he is, that is a nightmare that every family that has wrestled with mental illness has faced.
I would totally watch this movie if it’s ever made. I’m quite sure I could at least find this exact plot played out in a good dozen films. It’s fascinating because it gets to the core of our identity: who are we outside of who we believe we are? Do we have an intrinsic, unchanging self? Or is it all a construction that can topple with the right amount of force? Do we have anything that’s truly ours?
Torey Malatia at 58:48 by Ira Glass
WBEZ management oversight provided for our show by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia. You know at the WBEZ offices in Chicago there’s a safe within a safe and inside that, written by hand, some programming ideas Tory has for our show for the year 2111…I’m dead, everyone you know is dead, uh, here’s what I’d like you to do.
Episode 399: Contents Unknown on This American Life
Below you will find the introduction that Ira provides before each act. Hopefully it will give you an idea of how badly you want to listen this week. Enjoy!
“The last resort letters aren’t exactly a secret but most of us haven’t heard of them. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum came across them because he’s got a google alert that brings him any news story with the phrase “World War Three” in it — he’s written about nuclear war on and off for decades — and news came across the Google about a BBC documentary that details what these last resort letter are about.” —Ira Glass
Stories of truths, big and small, that are locked away. Sometimes the most exciting thing about these truths is knowing that they are out there. The answer exists but you don’t know it.” —Ira Glass
Act 1: Needle in a Crapstack by Jon Mooallem (7:31)
“Self-storage units: there’s a lot of them. 2.35 billion square feet in the United States according to the Self Storage Association. That, in case you were wondering, is 7.4 square feet of self storage for every man, woman, and child in this country meaning all of us, all of us, could all stand inside self storage at the same time.
And when people do not pay their self storage bills, after the facility tries to collect through all the normal means and fails, often the contents of the storage lockers get
auctioned off.” —Ira Glass
Act 2: He Shapes Ship Shapes by the Sea Shore by Adam Davidson (23:48)
Byzantine Empire. Quick! When? Who? Where? What? … Yeah, me neither. But I looked it up. The Byzantine Empire is basically the eastern half of the Roman Empire which broke off. It existed from around 300 AD to the 1400s. And archeologists thought that they knew most of the big things that you’d want to know decades ago. So much so that by the 1950s they bulldozed Byzantine sites to get at stuff that seemed more interesting underneath it: Greek and Roman stuff. And then everything changed. Our whole understanding of the Byzantines changed. And the way we got to this understanding starts with one shipwreck.” —Ira Glass
Act 3: The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean (36:02)
“… true story from David MacLean” —Ira Glass
That’s not very informative so I’ll fill you in a little more. The narrator wakes up with no memory of who he is. This is common enough that they actually have a procedure for this. The story occurs in India.
Like the rest of America, we at This American Life are not tired yet of those stories of women who have no idea they are pregnant, and then–POOF–a baby pops out.
He’s right, I’m not tired of those stories, and Jennifer Lyne’s story fascinated me. Jennifer went to the doctor thinking she had a tumor, and three days later she went into labor and delivered her baby daughter. She had suspected the pregnancy, but the two pregnancy tests she took were negative. Also, she was on the pill for the entire pregnancy. The questions asked by the women on the This American Life staff were all questions that flashed through my mind:
- Did you feel her kick? No.
- Were you nauseated? No.
- Did your hair fall out? No.
- Did your ankles swell? Yes.
- Were you exhausted? Yes.
I feel like if I had just read this story, I would’ve doubted it. Come on, you went nine months without a period, while you were on the pill, and you didn’t get yourself to a doctor for further investigation. But hearing this woman interact with the TAL staff was fairly irresistible. I buy her story.
The questions I had that weren’t addressed at all, meaning they were likely off limits, were things like, “Did you worry about every medicine you’d taken? Every glass of wine? Every piece of sushi? All that caffeine?” I’m sure the answer to each was, yes, she did worry. But what can you do after the fact? I also wonder if the fact that her baby is happy and healthy now will make her more or less paranoid for future pregnancies. Will the fact that she didn’t get to do all the “right” things the first time make her want to make up for it with the second? Or will she see that no real harm was done, and carry on as usual?
One other interesting bit of the prologue was an interview with an OB/GYN who through out the downright startling statistic that 30% of women who receive an abnormal pap smear result do not follow up on the result. This means there are women who are told, “you might have cancer.” And their reaction is to…do nothing. I wonder what the equivalent numbers are for men. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I have to believe it would be higher than 30%.
Act One: When I Grow Up at 8:35 by David Holthouse
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.–Romans 12:19
I have both everything and nothing to say about this powerful, horrifying, well-crafted story. I think given the weight of the subject matter, I’m going to go with nothing. What possible commentary can be given on a story about the rape of a seven-year-old little boy?
Act Two: Isn’t it Slow-Mantic at 32:57 by Sean Lewis
Sean Lewis tells the love story of his uncle, Mark, and his wife, Ha–a love story that plays out over 17 years and two countries. Mark was known by the family as a straight-laced, stand-up kind of man who lived his life by schedules and rules. He was not known for his spontaneity. Unsurprisingly, he spent the early part of his career in the military. One of his first overseas assignments was to Korea, where he met a beautiful woman named Ha, and fell in love. Unfortunately, family life drew him back to the US and occupied him for over a year. By that time, Ha had moved twice, and he had no way of tracking her down.
The love story part of this act is very sweet. You know from the start that they’ll find each other again, but it’s still easy to get sucked into the narrative. More than that though, this was a story of identity and being known. It wasn’t until Mark’s family found out who this woman was, and the depth of his love for her that they really found out who Mark was. At Mark and Ha’s wedding, 17 years after their romance began, Mark’s sister watched as her brother seemed to transform before her: “I think my favorite moment of the wedding was Mark dancing with Ha to Led Zepplin–who knew?”
Act Three: I’m Still Here at 46:20 by Jonathan Menjivar
It’s made me kind of fearless to have had [cancer] this long. I kind of think, what’s the worst that’s going to happen if you do it? What’s the worst that could happen if you believe that maybe you could stay alive. And the answer is…nothing.
Katherine Russell Rich is dying of cancer…very, very slowly. Kathy is in the 2% of stage 4 breast cancer patients that live longer than 20 years after diagnosis. So far, she’s lived 23 years beyond her initial diagnosis.
I found Kathy’s description of her feelings immediately after diagnosis to be really illuminating: “I just had this sense that shouldn’t someone call the police? I mean, I’d never been in a situation where there’s no one you could call.” I’ve been thinking about this sentiment in relation to war. My little sister is living in Lebanon for a year. Last month, the government collapsed, and things have been increasingly tense since then. Right now, there is still some semblance of order and authority, but her world could fall into chaos at any moment. It’s true that there are still authorities that she can turn to. She has a way out. She can go to the embassy. Even if the embassy couldn’t offer her help, there are few problems in this world that can’t be fixed with connections and money. We would find her a way. But Molly is lucky, and her privileged position does not represent a sizable chunk of the population of Lebanon.
Who do you call when there is no one to call? What do you do in a situation that seems hopeless and beyond human help? As TAL so often does, this story hit on one of the questions that all humans eventually have to face: who is really in charge here?
Torey Malatia at 58:48 by Ira Glass
WBEZ management oversight provided for our show by Torey Malatia. You know he is definitely learning the lessons that we hope to teach with our show each and every week. For example, during today’s show he actually dropped by my office during one of the breaks in the show to say to me, “kinda noticed you were kinda getting a little rounder around the middle,” and we know what that means.
Prologue by Ira Glass
“Today on the radio show we have stories about people who are very very amazingly slow to react in life changing situations. To kick off the show we considered all kinds of ideas but in the end I think there was really only one possibility like the rest of america we at this american life are not tired yet of those stories of women who have no idea that they are pregnant and then poof one day a baby pops out. we are not over that.” —Ira Glass
Act 1: When I Grow Up by David Holthouse (8:35)
“Back in 2004 a reporter named David Holthouse published this remarkable story in the weekly paper that he worked for back then called Westword, it’s about something he had waited his entire life to do, since childhood. [Aside to warn parents that this story is not for children]. David takes us inside the head of somebody, himself actually, who is contemplating things that he admits later are completely reprehenisible and wrong and he explains how he got to that point and even more unusual, how he was able to snap out of it.” —Ira Glass
Act 2: Isn’t it Slow-mantic? by Sean Lewis (32:55)
“In this act we turn to love and in Sean Lewis’s family there is a legendarily romantic love story. It’s famous in his family partly because the story unfolded over decades and across continents, but also because nobody can quite believe, even now, that out of everybody in the family, there are four siblings, out of everyone in the family the one with the epic swoon inducing love story is Mark. Mark the one sibling who was never wild or boisterous, the one who never tired to sneak into bars at 14.”—Ira Glass
Act 3: I’m Still Here by Jonathan Menjivar (46:15)
“Slow to react is usually kind of an insult you know, a flaw, a failing, in this next case though the things that are slow to react are cancer cells. And you know slow to react in that kind of situation is sort of how you’d want it.”—Ira Glass
Not a lot of noteworthy stuff going on this week but here it is:
TAL on Current TV
Everyone seems excited about the TAL TV Show re-airing some of the best episodes. You can learn more about it on the Current TV page for TAL. You can get some other background, links, and a sample of the show from a post on the USA Today website. If you have Netflix I would recommend using that because they have all of the episodes up.
Ira on “WTF with Marc Maron”
In last week’s This American Everything post I mentioned this interview with Ira Glass. I started listening to it and it’s pretty interesting. Once I finish it up I will write up some more about it!
Sarah Vowell was the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast reviewed in NYT. TAL finally broadcast in Canada.
Sarah Vowell in The Incredibles
I pulled up some random article referencing Sarah Vowell (a former This American Life contributor) and the movie The Incredibles. It turns out that she was the voice of Violet, the invisible daughter. You can hear her radio voice in many episodes of TAL including the episode Nice Work if You Can Get It.
Candid Podcast not from Ira Glass
I caught a good article in the New York Times about a podcast that Ira Glass recently appeared on (is it called “appearing” if you just hear their voice?). The podcast is called “WTF with Marc Maron” and it has it’s own website where you can follow the links to download with iTunes or without.
Marc Maron has a history of knowing famous comedians and being nearly famous himself. The author for this NYT article wrote that Maron seems to pull his guests to a “level of vulnerability” that matches his own. Some guests that get very candid with him include Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, and recently Ira Glass.
Marc started with a humble little podcast but after the interview with Robin Williams he started to become known for his show. After some more interviews he felt that he had become some sort of journalist. He thinks that his easy conversational style leads to some very honest and interesting interviews.
I can’t help but feel like I want to try making a podcast myself and seeing what I can do. In time, in time…
TAL Coming to Canadian Radio
This American Life is coming to Canadian radio on CBC. There are a few articles covering the story in varying levels of detail and background. Read about it on the Winnipeg Free Press (pretty good little article), CNW’s article (similar to Winnipeg Free Press article), CBC News (very brief overview), and Straight.com (an even briefer overview).
The articles point out that 25,000 Canadians download the podcast each week whereas in the US there are 660,000 downloads per week. The broadcast will start with some of the favorite TAL episodes but will not include an episode that talks about famous people in American media that are Canadian.
Ira mentions that recent cutbacks for public radio around the world has increased demand for This American Life in other countries. Australia will soon be broadcasting This American Life too.