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720: The Moment After This Moment

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Florida is crucial this election. Florida, Florida, Florida. One of the people who thinks about that a lot is Kevin Sheekey. He's the guy whose job it is to spend $100 million that billionaire Mike Bloomberg has devoted to winning Florida for Joe Biden.

Sheekey is not intimidated by that task at all. He's spent lots of Bloomberg's money in the past. He ran Bloomberg's three successful runs for New York mayor and his campaign for president this year.

Kevin Sheekey

And Mike likes to say he gave me an unlimited budget, and I exceeded it each and every time. I actually don't intend to do that in the state of Florida.

Ira Glass

So why Florida? Of all the battleground states, why $100 million there? Kevin explained that a big part of it has to do with what's going to happen in other states. He pointed to all the times, in tweets and in speeches, that the president has said that mail-in ballots cannot be trusted.

Kevin Sheekey

Donald Trump has sought to delegitimatize all mail-in ballots, full stop. And clearly, will have a plan to contest those ballots after election day, as they are counted, in important swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Joe Biden is currently leading in.

Ira Glass

Michigan will take at least three days to count their ballots. Pennsylvania is not much different.

Kevin Sheekey

Trump has said, listen, I'm going to take every lawyer and every judge I have. I'm going to question every single ballot and try to toss them out. And just throwing out ballots by random could really move those states from Biden to Trump.

Ira Glass

That's because more Democrats are doing mail-in ballots than Republicans are this year. Bloomberg's people have actually run the numbers and calculated that there are states who were throwing out 7% of the ballots at random for not being filled out correctly, which would flip a Biden victory in that state to a Trump victory.

Kevin Sheekey

And that's a very dangerous proposition. And that's what we're trying to avoid by getting into Florida.

Ira Glass

Florida is a state that Donald Trump pretty much has to win. If he loses Florida, it would be enormously difficult for him to gather enough electoral votes to have re-election. And-- this is key-- Florida is a state that counts mail-in ballots as they arrive. They're counting them right now, already, which means we very well could know the results in Florida on election night. And if Florida goes to Biden, it might settle the race that night.

Kevin Sheekey

And our ultimate goal is to win the state of Florida so that we, quite frankly, don't have to have that fight in a state like Pennsylvania.

Ira Glass

So how did you pick 100 million? What was that discussion like?

Kevin Sheekey

You know, listen, I think it was ultimately what we determined we would need. It was the number that we thought we would make a difference.

I called a guy who I know who is probably the smartest strategist on the Democratic side. And I asked him, how much would you need to spend if you wanted to be able to have an impact on a race, statewide race, in a presidential in Florida? And how much would you need to really put your thumb on the scale?

And he said at the time, well, Florida is an extraordinarily expensive state. It has a lot of large, expensive media markets. And to have any sort of impact, you really need to spend $20 million. And if you really want to put your thumb on the scale, you're going to need to spend $70 million. And so, this being Bloomberg, we rounded up.

Ira Glass

Most of that Bloomberg money is going to TV ads and digital ads, dropped into cities all across the state, like a vast air war conducted from 30,000 feet. Kevin Sheekey says Bloomberg's doing daily polling to see what effect this is having, which is actually kind of hard to figure out. All kinds of things push voter opinion around.

But Kevin says the numbers in Florida have moved from a tie between Trump and Biden to a small Biden lead. It's still within the margin of error, but it's a lead, 2 to 4 points, that the Bloomberg people find encouraging.

So that's the view from 30,000 feet. Down on the ground, that all looks a little different because of something so basic. And that's the coronavirus and how the two campaigns have responded to the coronavirus.

As you may know over the summer, the Democratic Party policy was, do not go door to door. Do not hold events in person. Do not hold rallies. Republicans did all that stuff.

And in Florida, even before the virus, they were doing more and registering more voters than the Democrats. In sheer numbers, there are more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans. But since 2016, the Republicans have knocked that lead down. It used to be 7%. Now it's just 3 and 1/2%. A quarter of the voters in the state have no party affiliation.

So the Republicans were going strong before the virus. And after the virus hit the state, they resumed normal operations. But the Democrats were not going out to campaign. It was like one party was out there in the streets, visible. And the other was just not.

One of our producers, Lina Misitzis, has been talking to Florida Democrats about all that. And Lina, how are they feeling?

Lina Misitzis

Not great. Or at least, not the ones that I talked to.

Ira Glass

Uh-huh.

Lina Misitzis

OK, so there's this one voter I found, Marji Hope. She's in a suburb called Weston, which is in one of the bluest counties in Florida. It's Broward County, which is just north of Miami. But she says that the Republican presence is so much more noticeable that her house is somehow surrounded by Trump signs.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Lina Misitzis

And there's almost no Biden signs in her neighborhood.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Lina Misitzis

Yeah, and she sees Trump supporters everywhere.

Marji Hope

The frustrating thing that is happening is when I get texts from my friends with pictures saying, oh my god, a carload of Trump supporters just got out in my neighborhood, and they're knocking on doors right now. But we have been not able to do that.

Lina Misitzis

So four years ago, Hillary Clinton's campaign had an office near Marji's house in Weston. And that's where people would go to pick up signs, to phone bank, to meet up with each other.

Marji Hope

Biden doesn't even have offices set up yet here, OK? We haven't been able to-- we haven't gotten campaign material. I mean, how hard is it to just put stuff on somebody's door? We could get Weston done. There's, like, 65,000 people living here. We could get them done in a weekend. And that's where the frustration is, is the minute we would put a call out, I know that I'd get a ton of people to come out. Because we're all dying to do this.

Lina Misitzis

Not only is Marji keeping track of what her site isn't doing, she's keeping track of what the other side is doing. She actually signed up for her county-- the Broward County local Republican newsletter.

Ira Glass

Wait, why?

Lina Misitzis

Because every day, when it sends out its daily email that lists all of the campaign events that they have coming up for the Republicans, she likes to keep track of it. And it kind of drives her crazy, just noticing all of these events that they're running.

Marji Hope

They are doing candidate forums. They are doing watch parties for the debates. They had watch parties at this place my husband and I used to go have breakfast at all the time, which we're not going to anymore. Because I'm like, if they're hosting these huge watch-- I could send you all these pictures of these people at the debates. Probably fit a lot of young people--

Julie

They make a lot of noise, and they make their presence known.

Lina Misitzis

I also talked to Marji's friend, Julie. She tracks the Republican events, too. And while Marji sounds kind of indignant when she talks about it, Julie sounds almost wistful.

Julie

They had pictures on the community Facebook page, and they had a watch party. And I thought, well, that's nice. I mean, most of them weren't wearing masks. So I know that that's something that a lot of people would be hesitant to do.

But it just seemed like it was something that involved community, that they were sitting together around, going, hey, we are a group. We are here. And they kind of support each other. And it's kind of something that I wish we could replicate and were as strong.

Lina Misitzis

In the absence of their own official meetups, I found a bunch of frustrated Democrats all over Florida, not just in Broward, who took matters into their own hands.

Ira Glass

What are they doing?

Lina Misitzis

OK, there's a woman in Oviedo, which is a small red town. And she's been hosting these very small rallies on street corners every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Lina Misitzis

Another example is a grandmother in Tallahassee who told me that she printed out a bunch of Florida voter registration forms. And she was handing them out to young-seeming people in the Walmart parking lot.

Ira Glass

Now I've read that the Biden campaign did finally start going door to door in Florida and in other states, too, this fall.

Lina Misitzis

Yes, that happened two weeks after I started talking to Marji. And she went out with them. But for her, it wasn't enough.

Marji Hope

Why am I canvassing 23 days before-- whatever-- 25 days before an election? I should have been canvassing 40 days before an election.

Lina Misitzis

Right.

Marji Hope

You know how many people-- I mean, hundreds of thousands of people have already voted in Florida.

Act One: School of Hard Knocks

Ira Glass

Well, today on our show, we have stories of people fretting, worried about what is going to happen next, and all that is still unknown. The future is barreling towards them. They're going to find out soon enough, but not quite yet. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And let's get to it. Act 1, the School of Hard Knocks.

So Lina looked into whether the fears that she heard from Florida's Democrats are justified. Are their leaders dropping the ball? Did the party pull back too far with the coronavirus precautions? She put together this story.

Lina Misitzis

I think Democrats have been doing, instead of door knocking, phone calling. And gone is the camaraderie of organizing, everyone breathing in the same air in some makeshift, fluorescent-lit campaign center. This volunteering is done from home. And here's what it looks like.

Maria is a phone banking volunteer. She's 33, living in Southeast Florida with her husband and her three-year-old son.

Operator

Your entry does not match our records. Please enter your PIN, then pound.

Lina Misitzis

She works in consulting. And after work, she has 45 minutes to phone bank before her kid gets home.

Operator

You are now connected.

Lina Misitzis

Maria was born in Colombia, moved here when she was 16 with her parents. She's a citizen now, and not a fan of the president.

Maria

His comments against immigrants, against women-- I mean, I think almost every single position that he's taken and every comment that he's made is against what I believe and what I think this country stands for.

Lina Misitzis

Maria did door knocking in 2016, and she's doing phone banking now. I wanted her to compare them for me. And so I listened in while she phone banked. In 45 minutes, she dialed 28 phone numbers.

Maria

Hi, is this Angie?

Operator

At the tone, please record your message. When you finish recording, you may--

Lina Misitzis

Nine of those 28 phone calls went to voicemail, which the Democrats mostly don't think it's worth it to leave messages after the beep. One phone call, a toddler picked up.

Maria

Hi, is this Caitlin?

Toddler

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

The kiddo seemed to put the phone down and walk away.

Maria

Hello?

Lina Misitzis

Some grownups didn't want to get into it either.

Woman

With who?

Maria

With the Democratic Party of Florida.

Woman

OK, thank you. Not interested.

Maria

All right, thank you.

Lina Misitzis

Of course, not everyone Maria spoke to favored her side.

Man 1

I'm going to vote for Trump.

Maria

Oh, you will?

Man 1

I'm voting for Trump!

Maria

OK.

Man 1

I can tell you that right now.

Maria

Bye.

Lina Misitzis

There were three calls like that.

Man 2

I don't think I want to vote for Sleepy Joe. I'm sorry. I don't think he's worth being president.

Maria

Thank you.

Lina Misitzis

The goal of these calls, it's not to persuade anyone. It's just to get Biden voters to vote. And over a third of them, 11 people, were Biden supporters. Six of them said that they'd already mailed in their ballots. And five of them hadn't.

Man 3

Well, it's only the first week of October. They don't vote until November 3rd. I thought maybe I could send it out at the end of the month.

Maria

No, don't wait till the end of the month, because a lot of people are going to be mailing their ballots. And the Postal Service is going to be overwhelmed with the ballots. So make sure you send it in sooner. You don't want to have it delayed and not being counted.

Man 3

OK.

Maria

Use black ink, sign the outside of the envelope, and mail it back quickly.

Man 3

OK.

Lina Misitzis

Maria says that that one call, it made it feel worth her time that day.

Maria

Because I think that was one more vote-- one vote that will be counted and wouldn't have been otherwise if I hadn't called him.

All right, have a good night.

Man 3

Bye.

Maria

Bye.

Lina Misitzis

So 45 minutes, one actual vote for her team, for her state. Though, also, four other Biden voters that she nudged towards mailing in their ballots.

And how do these phone calls compare to door knocking? Maria says in 2016, in terms of how many people she'd made direct contact with in a shift, door knocking and phone banking are about the same. But going door to door takes way more time.

Maria

Between going and grabbing the list and getting to the place and walking around and waiting-- someone's mom would open the door, and then we had to wait for the person that we were actually trying to reach to come over.

Lina Misitzis

What happened yesterday took 45 minutes, and then what you're-- like, a Saturday afternoon in 2016, it sounds like it would take a few hours.

Maria

Yeah, but I do think it's just as good.

Lina Misitzis

There's been actual research on this, which shows that door knocking and phone banking are pretty close in terms of their effectiveness, with a slight edge towards door knocking, though calling people is faster.

So the question really is, how many phone calls are Democrats making for Biden in Florida, compared to doors knocked on in the past? I called around for numbers. The closest I got was from the independent organization that coordinates a lot of the get-out-the-vote among Democrats in Florida. They're called America Votes.

They say when you count phone banking and door knocking and everything else that they do to reach voters, they've doubled the number of people they've had conversations with in Florida. It's 2 million this year versus 1 million or fewer in previous elections.

But that number doesn't include the Democratic Party's own get-out-the-vote effort, which is an important part of the picture. Party officials would not give me outreach numbers for this year or previous elections.

What they did do, instead, is say that everything is on track. All of the Florida Democratic officials I talked to agreed on that. Here's Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She's Marji's congresswoman, and she used to chair the National Democratic Party.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

I mean, at the moment, I can tell you that we lead. I mean, the proof is in the voting. Democrats lead Republicans in vote by mail by 360,000-plus vote by mail ballots being turned in. That is just massive, massive increases. We are really lapping the field. And so what I say to nervous Democrats is, the proof is in the voting. And we have to just keep people voting.

Lina Misitzis

It's true that more Democrats than Republicans have mailed in their ballots. But that's kind of what you'd expect. COVID reactions have fallen along party lines, and way more Democrats asked for mail-in ballots than Republicans did.

Of course, things could get completely reshuffled on Monday. That's when early in-person voting starts in Florida. Republicans could start showing up in droves.

I honestly think that there's nothing Debbie Wasserman Schultz or other party leaders could say that would reassure Marji or Julie or any of the nervous Democrats I talked to. Jeff Green, who also lives in Broward, he remembers, two years ago, how confidently they all headed into the governor's race. It was the race that was supposed to show that a Democrat could win statewide office in Florida.

Jeff Green

So two years ago today, Andrew Gillum was up 9 points against Ron DeSantis in the governor's race. And all the Democrats were, ra, ra, ra, Gillum's going to win. And of course, he didn't.

Lina Misitzis

Looming even bigger, of course, is Hillary Clinton. Every Democrat I talked to invoked Hillary Clinton.

Kate

We all remember. We all remember what happened in 2016. We remember what happened in 2018. We remember all of it. And so nobody trusts it anymore.

Lina Misitzis

Fact is, most big elections in Florida in the last 10 years have been decided by about 1.1% of the vote. Biden's ahead right now in the polls, but not by much. And either candidate could win. So they're not wrong to be worried.

Ira Glass

Lina Misitzis is one of the producers of our show.

Coming up, fears of toys that come on without anybody touching them and other worries that have nothing at all to do with electoral politics, I promise. That is in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Words Vs Fear

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Moment After This Moment. We have stories today of people who are worrying about a future that is on its way. We are now at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, Words Versus Fear.

So when you're scared about things that might happen, the most effective thing to do, of course, is to jump into action and see that things go your way, right? To try to make things happen so that the worst does not occur. But the truth is, that doesn't always do the job, right? It doesn't always get rid of your fears. So then what do you do?

Well, years ago, we did a story about somebody who came up with this strategy. There were things that this guy was afraid of, things that put him on edge. And one day, he just decided to write them down, just to get them out of his system. And so he started writing, numbering every fear, one after another. Quickly, it got to 10 fears, and then 20, and then 30 and 40 and 50, until he had 138 of them on paper.

The man's name is Michael Bernard Loggins. He was in his 50s at the time he did this. He's developmentally disabled. He was living in San Francisco-- still does. And the arts program for adults where he did this, a place called Creativity Explored, published this writing as a little, handwritten, xeroxed zine called Fears of Your Life.

And then a few years later, Michael found out there were more fears to tame by turning them into words, and he put out a part 2, a sequel, titled Fears of Your Life, a Whole Brand New One. This one listed 45 fears.

Michael gave us permission to excerpt the two books. And they're just this remarkable, wide-ranging, encyclopedic, Talmudic, memorable tour of human fears. And none of them have to do with politics. And they seem worth going back to today. Actor Tom Wright is our reader.

Tom Wright

Fear of hospitals and needles. Fear of school and dentists. Fear of noises and bumps in the middle of the night. Fear of doors when they slams. Fear of toys that come on by itself without anyone touching it.

Fear of being caught with another woman after cheating on your wife. Fear of being in wrong places at the wrong time. Fear of dropping your soda as it hit the ground and fizz on you. Fear of tall giraffe. Fear of some birds. Fear of being different.

I fear that those TV people would take off my favorite cartoon, The Rugrats, off the air and wouldn't be able to watch them anymore for a long, long, long time. Please let well enough alone. Please don't take my Rugrats cartoon off the air because I love that cartoon. Let there be a possibility that life with the Rugrats stays put, means leave my Rugrats cartoon on TV, Michael said.

Fear if you put things that doesn't belongs in your ears, and you bust the drums that's are in your ears. It liable to run you deaf, where you can't hear anything at all. You wouldn't be able to hear cars when they're coming at you. That can be a frightening and very horrible situation to happen to you if you had an occurrence in real life, especially if you comes involved in it. Can you get hit by cars if you can't hear them?

Michael is afraid and frightening and fearful when Andrea Scheer goes away for a very, very, very long, long, long, long vacational trips in order to go traveling all over the world, almost like different places and different cities and countries to visit people in her own image and own language. He afraid Andrea Scheer would come back to San Francisco, California with all different accents and won't be able to speak Michael's English, or not be able to understand his words that he's telling her, like "Merry Christmas."

I'm afraid and fearful that pigeons don't know right from wrong to not go out into the street. They don't have the kind of memory as we humans does to know what to do and what shalt not do. They must don't know the danger of their lives are being jeopardized. And they must don't know what can definitely happen to them to humans' knowledges and sense. They land just anywhere they can find a land-on surface.

Fear of sharks. Fear of giant man. Fear of gorilla. Fear of Godzilla. Fear of tall woman. Fear of killer whales. Fear of dinosaurs bird. Fear of invisible man. Fear of blob.

Fear that if I go into the library and I happens to get, like, seven or eight books, and I happens to find a place in the library, that I would get a lot of comfortable and begin reading in those seven or eight books, but one book at a time, and I start to read, and somehow, my voice and mind start to get from low to high and thinking that there weren't anyone elses reading theirs. And I look over and the people in the library and I get fearful, and I'll say, "Oops, sorry."

If your friends are people that you are with and you hear them making decision about what they decided that they are going to steal expensive and very valuable merchandise out of the department stores and don't care less, you say, "I am out of here. Bye bye. I'm not getting caught in your crazy schemes. I'm not your stealer partner. I'm just your friend. It's going to trouble, and it's on your head, not mine. I'm not going to participate in stealing with you, so leave me out of your crazy schemes, especially if it involve Oreo cookies and other stuff, hot stuff." Fear of me getting in trouble just as well.

It's very scary and fearfully to be sleeping in your bed in the middle of the night whenever there is a telephone right beside the bed on your left near the door you once enter and exit out. You are sleeping. The telephone rang and scare the living life out of you in the middle of the night. Who is this calling at this hour of the night?

Fear of a blasted music on the radio when you are not aware that the volume is turned up. Fear of rolling downhill backwards. Fear of foghorn. Fear of getting hugged by somebody you don't like. There's Los Angeles fears. Fear of getting hit over the head when you carry lots of dough with you, or bucks.

Fear is like this. Someone like a woman that you grab ahold of her hand in going down the escalator, when of a sudden, you happens to be holding a stranger hand, not realizing that she isn't your mother, is scary. Fear that if you put too much of toilet paper in the toilet bowl, it will run over and get all over the floor and on you and on someone else, too. It would leak from upstairs to the next floor below.

I am afraid someday I liable to get lost inside Children's Hospital if I'm not all so familiar with that place yet. It's going to take some time to get used to it. Fearfully of that great, big, humongous Children's Hospital there ever would be to Michael's knowledge.

Good that Michael's sister is driving him up there on Tuesday, January 15, 2002. Even though she's with him, she can easily get lost, too. Bad situation to tangled up in, especially if you that person has an appointment at 10:45 AM in the morning. Michael Bernard Loggins does.

Michael fear that if his teacher Francis doesn't put away Michael's Top Ramen noodles up in the desk drawer, that Douglas will see it and he'll liable to want to take it. And he'll happen to eat up Michael Bernard Loggins' noodles himself. And Michael Bernard Loggins would be out of luck, but he would have to go home tonight and bring back to school another pack of noodles to eat himself, so that wouldn't ever, ever happened with that Douglas eat up noodle story.

It would be very fearful if I reached up on top shelf trying to reach for a nice, thicker-covered dictionary book and not ask for help from someone, and the books come off the shelf and make lots of noises, and the people gets angry at me and don't understand that I had want help, but I were afraid to ask for it. And they'd be a jerk or a creep, as Hope tells me. And people say that I'll have to pay for the shelf, and I get in lots of trouble behind it, says Michael.

Fear of being with a friend that you have recently met start to take you places with him, and you doesn't know him all that well. You didn't know that he were going to bring you fear and lots of trouble your way. Someone you doesn't know all that well starts to carry you in this store to buy you and him something to eat and drink.

And all of a sudden, something very fishy starts to happen. Like for instance, your friend that you are with could be up to trouble, and whoever with him could be heading in for trouble as well, especially if a friend of yours could be bringing you trouble by stealing a big package of Oreo cookie.

People are fearful of me, which I wonder, is they think I'm all that terrible? Or I'm thinking that they think I'm not human at all. Because when they sit next to me, then they get back up and move away from me. I may be a stranger, but that doesn't make me a created monster or something like that.

People aren't humans. They act like ignorance dogs with their tail in back of their legs or in between their middle bodies, their legs. They don't think whose feeling they hurt at all. They just do it, no consideration for whatsoever. People don't think about how they hurt my feelings or don't give a hoot. They don't give a crap.

Fear of you never knowing you were going to lose your mother is very sad and scary experience you have to face and learn from. And you wonder why she has to die. I love her. And I had loved her once while she were alive, especially if she was the mother that raised you and the others through birth. And you only wish that you could have done all you can to help save her life. There going to be a worst times and hard times for Michael Bernard Loggins, and his sisters and brothers, too, especially when Mother's Day comes. Afraid this is the last thing that ever occurred to me.

Ira Glass

Excerpts from Michael Bernard Loggins' two xeroxed zines, Fears of Your Life, Parts 1 and 2 read for us by actor Tom Wright. To get your own copy of these amazing books or to find out more about the arts program where they were made, you can visit the website of Creativity Explored. That's creativityexplored.org.

[MUSIC - "HEAVY THINGS" BY BRETT NEWSKI]

Act Three: Best Laid Plans

Ira Glass

Act 3, The Best Laid Plans. So today's program is about people worrying about the future. And we thought for a change of pace, we would do this next story about people who are not worried enough about it.

This is another story from our archive. It is a particular favorite. It is about this couple and the future they kind of cheerfully threw themselves towards. And after that, everything that happens to him, it's like a hand grenade they bring into their own home, pull the pin, and then wait to see what is next. And one important thing about all of this is, is that when they did this, the kind of couple they were was a really great couple.

Kurt Braunohler

We were always, like, the most solid of all relationships of our friends and everything like that.

Ira Glass

Kurt Braunohler met his girlfriend on the third day of college. And in all of the ways that we think of what makes for a good relationship, I think that they were doing better than you or me or most people. They had a lot of fun together. They could talk about anything. They didn't really fight. Happy sex life.

Kurt Braunohler

We really just got along very well together. We traveled well together. We were always the kind of-- we were the place that friends would come when they are having hard times, and they would stay with us. And we were kind of-- it felt, like, very adult. When even when I was 23, I felt like I'm kind of married, even though neither of us had ever, ever discussed getting married.

Ira Glass

So what happened?

Kurt Braunohler

Well, after we had both turned 30, one day I just kind of was thinking about why we had never talked about getting married. We had never, ever talked about it seriously or otherwise. And whenever anyone would ask us, we would always just kind of brush it off and say, oh, we'll get married when we have kids. That's what we'd always say.

And I remember we were sitting in the living room, and it was October. And I had just said, hey, I want to talk. And I said, why do you think we haven't gotten married yet or even talked about it? And she just kind of looked at me and thought for a second. And then she said, well, I think that before we get married, we should probably sleep with other people.

And you would imagine that that would come as a huge shock to me-- like, hit me hard. But for some reason, it kind of-- it made sense to me. I kind of was like, OK, very calmly. And I guess the reason--

Ira Glass

Wait, how did that make sense?

Kurt Braunohler

I've thought a lot about this, and I think that there's a few reasons. We both had this kind of arrogant notion of our relationship-- that it could survive literally anything. That we had been together-- we had known each other our whole adult lives. We were each other's worlds. So really, I don't think we thought that we could destroy this thing.

Ira Glass

I talked to the girlfriend who did not want to come on the radio. And she said basically she'd only had two boyfriends in her life-- her high school boyfriend, who was not a good boyfriend at all, and Kurt, who was great.

But she met Kurt, she said, when she was 17. She was 30 when this happened. And she said that she felt like maybe she missed out on something in her 20s, experiences that other people had. And she didn't want to regret that.

A warning-- I should say, before we go any further in this story, we're going to acknowledge the existence of sex between adults. Nothing explicit. Anyway, so they sat on the couch, and they talked this through.

Kurt Braunohler

The next part of that conversation was the logistics. Do we break up? Do I move out? Do we just do this while we're living in the same house together?

And we kind of came up with this idea of borrowing this Amish concept called Rumspringa. And Rumspringa, in the Amish world, is when you're 16, you're allowed to be not Amish for two years. And then when you turn 18, you decide whether or not you come back to the fold.

Ira Glass

Right. And during those two years, kids get drunk. They sleep around. They try drugs.

Kurt Braunohler

They do lots of meth.

Ira Glass

They do lots of stuff.

Kurt Braunohler

So we were going to have-- we decided to have a Rumspringa from our relationship. And that's the other crazy thing, is that we decided that 30 days was enough. Because probably within 30 days, sleeping with other people would get that all out of our system in 30 days.

And it turns out it's really difficult to all of a sudden become single at 31, when you've never been single for your entire life. Because all of a sudden, I'm in New York City, and I'm single. And I essentially have the emotional tools of a 17-year-old boy.

Ira Glass

Because the last time you dated was-- you were 17.

Kurt Braunohler

The last time I dated, I was in a dorm room.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

Also, it wasn't that I was just-- it wasn't like I was single in New York City. Because being single in New York City is, I think-- the majority of it is being just very lonely and being on your own, whereas this was very different. I was in a mara-- I was in a race. I was in a 30-day race to sleep with as many people as I possibly could. Because after 30 days, I was going to go back and then get married. So--

Ira Glass

So there's a time clock ticking.

Kurt Braunohler

Every single-- it was almost to the minute where I'd just be like, if I wasn't out somewhere trying to meet someone, I was like, this is wasted time. I am wasting my time right now.

And also because of the fact that we were both-- my girlfriend and I were both very competitive with each other, that we didn't speak during that 30 days. But I think in both of our minds, we had a competitive nature of being like, I need to sleep with more people than she does. And I think she felt the same way.

Ira Glass

That's true. She did feel that way. I asked her. So before they started the Rumspringa, they took a last romantic trip together to New Orleans over New Year's. And they had a great time. And then on January 3, after they both cried a bit, Kurt moved out for a month.

So suddenly single, 31, time clock ticking, where do you start, right? Well, Kurt called this woman that he knew just a little bit and had a date on the very first or second night. He can't remember which it was.

And at dinner, he told her the entire situation. He laid the whole thing out that he was seeing somebody. They were taking this break to sleep around. And this was a rule that he made for himself, that he was always going to be honest with any woman that he met during this month. He was going to be honest upfront.

Kurt Braunohler

And that's the weird thing. That's the thing that I still kind of, when I think back on this time, that I don't understand. I don't understand how these women that I met during that time heard this story and were like OK, let's continue with this date.

Ira Glass

Well, what would they say?

Kurt Braunohler

I think most of them-- the overwhelming response was like, wow? And I can't believe you're telling me this.

Ira Glass

Kurt was staying on a futon on a friend's living room floor for the month in this apartment where there was no door between the living room and the bedroom where his friend was sleeping. And he brought this woman back on the first date, and they made out a little bit. And then they set another date.

Kurt Braunohler

I think it was probably for the next night or the night after, something like that.

Ira Glass

And what happens?

Kurt Braunohler

What do you mean? What happens on the date?

Ira Glass

I guess I mean, do you sleep with her? Since the whole point of this story is you're trying to sleep with women.

Kurt Braunohler

Yes, yes, yes.

Ira Glass

I mean, suddenly I felt very modest about asking, but yeah, no, did you--

[LAUGHTER]

Kurt Braunohler

Yes, we ended up sleeping together.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

Yeah. It was amazing. It was-- yeah, it totally turned my head around. It really did feel like having experiences I would imagine I would have had as a teenager, where sex was this very powerful thing, and it kind of overwhelmed you.

Ira Glass

A day or two after that, he picks up a woman at a bar, something he had never done before in his life, and he goes home with her. And from there, he's off and running. But remember, he has the emotional tools of a 17-year-old.

Kurt Braunohler

I was emotionally getting involved with these women. And that was against one of our rules that we had come up with. My girlfriend and I had had a rule saying, no relationships. We don't get into relationships with people. We're just going to go out and sleep with people to see what it's like.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see. And then-- but you didn't actually know how to just go out and sleep with somebody without getting emotionally involved.

Kurt Braunohler

Not at all. I mean, the first date I went on, I immediately was head over heels for her. And I knew her for six hours.

And I didn't know how to date. I didn't know how to date casually. So what I really was doing was just getting involved-- I was acting like a person who had been in a 13-year relationship with these women that I had just met.

Ira Glass

How does that mean? What do you mean?

Kurt Braunohler

Immediately holding hands. I remember that my impulse would be to say "I love you" during sex. [LAUGHS] That would be my impulse, because that's the only way I was used to having sex.

And I remember the first time that I did end up having sex, I started to say "I love you," and then just kind of swallowed it and made it seem like I was coughing. [LAUGHS] And that didn't happen just once.

Ira Glass

Kurt says it was just a month of incredibly intense feelings. He'd feel this crazy elation, or he would find himself walking down the street weeping. The girlfriend told me that she, meanwhile, was having escapades of her own. She'd be out all night, drinking and dancing, going to exclusive clubs with Mexican high rollers, doing crazy things with European tourists. It was just what she wanted, actually.

And both of them told me that the weirdest thing about that time was that the person that they wanted to talk to most about what was going on and share it with was each other. But of course, they weren't speaking.

Kurt says that one of the most amazing things to him that was kind of a revelation during that time was something-- I've never actually heard anybody talk about it aloud, but I totally related to this-- was how quickly he would find himself in the home of a complete stranger.

Kurt Braunohler

Yeah, I'd never gotten to see other people's apartments so much. That's what I kind of was fascinated by, was getting to see all these different people's apartments and seeing how everyone lives. And I love that. I love that part of it so much. You know, I was like, look at this. I'm seeing-- this is all your stuff. This is the stuff you keep on your bedside table.

And also having really weird experiences I never had before, like of women picking me up. I never experienced that before. I was so confused because it was a bartender. She was a bartender, so she just kept giving me free drinks. And I was like, why is this person-- why is she giving me all these free drinks?

But it is fascinating to see, if you stay at the bar until 4:00 in the morning, and then all of a sudden-- I'd never been aware of it before, but then I started looking around me, like, oh, all these people are pairing off. Look at how this happens. I'd never been-- I've been at bars until 4:00 in the morning, but I was always-- it's all of a sudden uncovering this whole level of single life in New York City that I just had not been aware of before.

Anyone in New York City, I feel like, can have sex any night of the week if they just followed two rules, which is stay at the bar until 4:00 in the morning and dramatically lower your standards. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

So after a month, Kurt and his girlfriend get together and talk. And they agree that a month was not enough for this. They both said it was just obvious the experiment hadn't run its course. They both wanted more time. So they decided on a second month, which then becomes the third month.

And for Kurt, as time went on, it got harder and harder to stick with the rule that they had made of not getting into any relationships. He was just muddling about how to figure out how to do that. In his head, he would think, like, when is something actually a relationship?

Kurt Braunohler

And I think in my head, I was like, three dates. Three dates makes a relationship. That's what I defined. And so then I would try to not see people for more than three times. That was increasingly difficult.

Ira Glass

It's difficult because he was giving women two opposite messages at the same time. He would tell them that he was just taking a month's break from his real relationship, and this isn't serious. But then he didn't hold back any of his feelings.

Kurt Braunohler

What I felt like kept happening was that I would act like I wanted to be their boyfriend. And then after three dates, would just abruptly end it, with no explanation whatsoever.

And definitely people would yell at me and call me names. And to this day, I feel horrible about that. Because I was just-- I was acting like a crazy person. I was acting like a person with absolutely no boundaries.

Ira Glass

So it was hard to stop himself while it was going on. And when we talked about it, Kurt's best explanation for that was--

Kurt Braunohler

Well, I once had a-- when I had a dog-- when I was a kid, I had a dog. And one day, the cat knocked a five-pound bag of sugar off onto the floor. And my dog was about nine pounds. He was a toy poodle. And he ate all five pounds of sugar in one day. And then he was sick for, like, three days afterwards.

But I always think about that, that day for him, how amazing that day must have been. You're eating all of that sugar and eating it, and then kind of going away from it for a little while and being like, I can't stop. When is this going to happen again? And then he just started vomiting and vomiting for three straight days. And that's how I felt, you know? I knew this was bad, but I was like, when is this ever going to happen again?

Ira Glass

I asked Kurt's girlfriend if all this happened to her during the Rumspringa, too, if it was hard just to have sex without emotion entering into it at all. And she said, absolutely not. Quote, "You mean the dudes that I meet at bars or parties, whatever? Those people?" She said, I didn't tell anyone anything about my background or the situation.

And I asked her, wait, so you wouldn't explain, I'm on a break from a relationship? She said no, because it sounds crazy. I told her that Kurt would reveal all of that, which she knew. And she said, yeah, Kurt's way too open. But, quote, "That openness probably just made him more appealing to the ladies."

By the end of three months, Kurt started to fall for this woman that he met in Australia-- and this time, really, actually fell for her in a real way. And this made him, of course, feel differently about his relationship with his girlfriend.

So he flew back to the States, stayed at their old apartment, and because this is the most comfortable relationship that has ever existed between two people, of course, they dealt with it all right away, very straightforward.

Kurt Braunohler

And we woke up in the morning, and we went and got brunch. And we brought it to the park, the way we'd always used to do on Saturdays. And we just sat in the park and talked. And we broke up.

And that's the thing. I can't point to something that was bad about our relationship, except for knowing that I feel like it had run its course. I mean, we organically got to the point where we both thought this was a good idea.

Ira Glass

This-- the Rumspringa?

Kurt Braunohler

It's almost like the relationship had an expiration date, but we didn't know about it. And then all of a sudden, we came up with this really complicated, crazy plan to put the test down at the right place where it would break. And it broke.

Ira Glass

His old girlfriend said something similar. She said she'd probably wanted out of the relationship before the Rumspringa, but she was too scared to admit it to herself. The Rumspringa gave them a way to break up.

Kurt says he would not want to do a Rumspringa again, but he came out of this experience believing that it is important to force things to a decision with someone, and that it's healthy for any relationship to be evaluated now and then.

Kurt Braunohler

I do have a theory now. I do have a theory about if I do get married in the future, what I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years, we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years, it ends. And we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

Ira Glass

Why?

Kurt Braunohler

Because then I think you get to choose. And I think it makes the relationship-- would make the relationship stronger.

Ira Glass

I don't know what I think of that, because I think, actually, one of the things that's a comfort in marriage is that there isn't a door at seven years. And so if something is messed up in the short term, there's the comfort of knowing like, well, we made this commitment. And so we're just going to work this out.

And even if tonight we're not getting along, or there's something between us doesn't feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, we've got time. We're going to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier. Because you do that through times when you hate each other's guts. You know what I mean?

Kurt Braunohler

Of course you do, yeah.

Ira Glass

And the no-escape clause, weirdly, is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.

Kurt Braunohler

Really?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler

I had never thought of it that way. I like thinking about it that way. You just see so many examples of where people don't think that way.

Ira Glass

But Kurt and his girlfriend feel like the Rumspringa got them where they needed to go as a couple, even if that place was different than they intended when they began the whole thing. Sometimes what you need to do next as a couple, you can't even tell what it should be. And the best you can do is hold your breath, make a guess, and jump.

Well, these days, Kurt Braunohler is the host of a podcast called Bananas, and he virtually hosts the long-running variety show with Kristen Schaal, Hot Tub with Kurt and Kristen, Mondays on Twitch. So that story is a few years old. And I could probably say a lot about the things that Kurt and I talk about at the end, but I will leave it at this-- these days, Kurt is married, and I'm not.

Act Four: Potus Operandi

Ira Glass

Act 4, POTUS Operandi. OK, I'll say it. I believe that children are our future. And I believe that worries for our children and their future are probably the most common worries out there. Humanity's number one worry category, top of the charts, our survey says can't be beat, generation after generation.

But there's a whole other class of thoughts about our kids' futures that are less-- I don't know. They're not worry, exactly. They're more just like curiosity. 10 years ago, one of our producers back then, Jonathan Menjivar, talked about both those feelings, the curiosity and the worry, on our show.

Jonathan Menjivar

POTUS will have dark wavy hair. Her eyes will be brown, unless they're green, or maybe hazel. She will have full lips. She will not be tall, which is a nice way of saying that she might be short.

Because of this fact, POTUS will not like going to concerts because, like my wife Hillary, she'll only be able to see the backs of other people's heads and that spot on a person's back between their shoulder blades. Someday when she touches that spot on a person she loves, it will feel oddly familiar and comforting. Because all her life, while standing in line at the swings or waiting for a cashier to ring up her milk, she will have looked at that spot on other people.

Because she will be our daughter, POTUS will like chocolate ice cream and enjoy puns. She will need glasses by third grade.

POTUS, I should explain, is what Hillary and I have taken to calling the little girl Hillary will give birth to in 2010. Calling our kid "it" only felt right for about a week or two. So we brainstormed baby code names one night in bed.

Hillary thought the name should be something like that opening scene in the West Wing pilot, the one where Rob Lowe walks out of the shower, and a woman in underwear and a men's dress shirt reads from his pager, "POTUS in a bicycle accident." Hillary said our code name should pop like that. But we couldn't think of anything as cool as POTUS, so we just stole it.

I worried that while POTUS was still nothing more than cells splitting into other cells that we might be setting unachievable expectations by naming her the acronym the Secret Service used to refer to the President of the United States. When people find out you're having a baby, they predict all kinds of things about the child you'll have. But I wanted to let POTUS tell us who she was, so I tried to cling mostly to the facts.

20 weeks into Hillary's pregnancy, we went in for an ultrasound. Our ultrasound technician looked like Kate from Jon & Kate Plus 8 in scrubs. She had that crazy hairdo and everything. We asked if she could tell the gender of the baby. And she said, it's a girl. She said it with the same level of enthusiasm I used to tell Hillary that we got a gas bill in the mail.

Knowing that POTUS was a girl meant that now there was a shape to the mystery. The ultrasound gave us the lines of a coloring book, and we couldn't help but fill them in. Hillary remembered all the stuff about dominant and recessive genes that I slept through in my high school biology class.

And we thought about our friend Michelle, a biologist who spends her days working with fruit fly genes. I don't really understand what it is she does exactly, except that it has something to do with diabetes. And this summer, when I was having a fruit fly infestation, she didn't have any suggestions for how I could capture or kill them.

I thought maybe Michelle could help us figure out what POTUS might look like. She said she'd do her best, but that this stuff was more complicated in humans than what I was imagining. She also told me that there was a great paper published in Science recently about the genetics of dog coats, and that if we were breeding a dog instead of a little girl, she could be really helpful.

So Michelle came over to our house, and in exchange for lasagna and a beer, she sat with me and drew Punnett squares, those little squares divided into four smaller squares that are supposed to help you figure out what traits win over others. Michelle was willing to commit to a few things, like the fact that POTUS will likely have dark hair.

But really, she said, even if she was able to study me and Hillary in a lab, she couldn't tell us with any certainty what our baby will look like. Because unlike dogs, humans haven't been bred for certain traits, so there's really no way of knowing what green eyes may be hiding in my genes.

Mostly, she said, the whole dominant/recessive thing could help us figure out dopey stuff. Like, for instance, now we know that POTUS will have unattached earlobes and be able to impress her friends with her ability to roll her tongue like a taco.

A few months ago, not long after we found out that POTUS was a girl, I was riding my bike home from work. The traffic was heavy, so I was going pretty slow. I looked to my right and noticed a girl on the sidewalk looking at me, staring, really. She looked like she was in her early 20s, and she had her auburn hair tied in a thick braid that swung over her right shoulder.

I can't remember if she was wearing glasses, but I know she was wearing a dress and holding a petition clipboard in her right hand. If skin was made of Play-Doh, hers is what you would get if you forever mixed the Hillary color with the Jonathan one. I couldn't tell you if it was that or the way she looked at me intently that's to blame, but I stared back. And for a split second, I thought she might be POTUS all grown up.

I wanted to ask her so much, how was school? You live around here? What do you like more, seeing fireflies for the first time in the summer or the first fat snowflakes of winter? Really, though, every question was some variation on the one big question I'll try my whole life to make POTUS answer yes to-- are you happy? It's also, I realize, a question I can't predict the answer to.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar. These days, he's making shows at Pineapple Street Studios. His daughter Sasha is now 10 years old in 5th grade, really into playing the drums, and running for school treasurer.

[MUSIC - "EVERYTHING RIGHT IS WRONG AGAIN," BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Bim Adewunmi and me. The people who put together today's show include Elna Baker, Dana Chivvis, Aviva DeKornfeld, Noor Gill, Chana Jaffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alyssa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor, Sara Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Sahil Mehrotra, Dr. Daniel A. Smith, Casey Morell, and Steve Schale. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos and all kinds of other stuff there. thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. His new enemy? February. He'll tell you himself, very shifty month. It's supposed to be 28 days long. You never know it's going to stick around an extra day and refuse the peaceful transfer of power into March.

Kate

We all remember. We all remember what happened in 2016. We remember all of it, and so nobody trusts it anymore.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "EVERYTHING RIGHT IS WRONG AGAIN," BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]