288: Not What I Meant

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Ira Glass

Jonathan's a movie reviewer for a weekly newspaper in Chicago. And one day he got a kind of mysterious letter. First off, it was unsigned.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

And it was an anonymous love letter typed with an old fashioned kind of typewriter that's like where the letters are part black and part read because it's like stuck in the ribbon between the two.

Ira Glass

Right. I remember those.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

And as I recall, there wasn't any return address of any kind.

Ira Glass

Now you have in your hand a copy of the text of the letter. Could I ask you to read it?

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Yeah, OK.

"Dearest, do you know how much in love with you I am? I have fallen in love without taking a step. Did I trip? Did I stumble? Lose my balance? Graze my knee? Graze my heart?

You were all wrong for me and I know it, but I can no longer care for my thoughts unless they're thoughts of you."

Ira Glass

And so, what did you think?

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Well, I thought, I do get all kinds of both friendly and extremely sometimes unfriendly letters from readers. And it was not something I brooded over, but I didn't throw the letter away. In a way, I kind of felt a little flattered and curious about who might have written it. And pleased.

Ira Glass

So then, a few weeks later, Jonathan goes to a screening of a new film, a foreign director's first American movie, with Kate Capshaw and Ellen DeGeneres. And he's sitting there in the theater and there on the screen somebody picks up and reads a letter.


Dearest, do you know how much in love with you I am? I have fallen in love without taking a step. Did I trip? Did I stumble? Lose my balance? Graze my knee? Graze my heart?

Jonathan Rosenbaum

And then it became clear that what I was sent was a promotional device by the studio, DreamWorks, as a cutesy way of sort of screwing around with my head and the heads of other critics in order to promote their movie. I felt like throwing up.

Ira Glass

In a way, like the indignity of it, you know what I mean? You're having this little fond feeling and then just, oh, it's for a marketing campaign.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

And in a way, see what the feeling was about was, oh my God, I've got to meet this person. It's so exciting. There was a little excitement to it. But I also, in other words, was not absolutely sure it was real. I wanted it to be real. And I felt that in a sense that because you're being tricked almost into kind of like you're having your flattery stroked with something like a love letter, I found it particularly insidious.

Ira Glass

What's interesting about all this is that the movie itself was called The Love Letter. And in the movie, one person after another picks up this anonymous letter and each person thinks that it's meant for them. And then, each person in the movie, starts eyeing people, seeing them in this whole new light as they wonder, is this the person who sent me the letter?

The point is, I guess, the letter, through its sheer vagueness, can mean what anyone wants it to mean. That is, as long as the meaning involves love and them.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

It's specifically designed to do that within the movie, so I guess that it becomes an extension of that, I guess, to do that to the critics. So in that sense, they're trying to prove a point, I guess you could say. But then when I discovered that it was a publicity stunt, it really made me feel idiotic and embarrassed. And you know, it was not a good feeling.

Ira Glass

What's amazing is how often this happens when there's no prank involved. How often something is said or done that gets completely misinterpreted because somebody adds their own assumptions to it.

Well, today on our radio show, we have three stories like that. In the first, the stakes are frighteningly high. A series of misunderstandings that can ruin someone's life. In the second, an act we're calling Cat Got Your Tongue, David Sedaris discusses gossip. In our third act, Romance Languages, is about unavoidable misunderstandings in two of the things that people care about most: sports and love.

From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International, I'm Ira Glass. It's our Not What I Meant show. Stay with us.

Act One: Froggy Goes A-courtin'

Ira Glass

Act one, Froggy Goes A-Courtin'.

This is a story of a huge, rolling growing misunderstanding, the kind where one wrong assumption piles up against another and another and another. And when it begins, Shaheen is an ordinary American citizen. By the time it's done, he's come to the attention of the Defense Department at the very highest levels. And possibly also, the President of the United States. It begins with what Shaheen and his girlfriend, Molly, call, the incident.

Shaheen is an American, but he was born in Afghanistan. And he worked there for a while in his 20s. And in Tajikistan doing humanitarian aid work. He ran a project setting up emergency housing, for instance, for refugees after the Taliban fell. Gabrielle Galanek talked to Molly and Shaheen about what happened next, when Shaheen returned to the United States.

Gabrielle Galanek

He came home to Santa Fe in 2002 and tried to figure out what to do next. He began applying to graduate schools, hooked up with his old friends, and he was a little bored in looking for something to do. And without telling anyone, he decided to do a little art project, just for fun. To stencil these figures on the sidewalk of Santa Fe. They looked like skinny alien creatures, sort of like frog men. The stencil was a plastic toy he found in his sister's yard and just laid on the sidewalk and spray painted around.


And the idea was to have these proliferate sort of somewhat magically. It just was going to be this fun, random thing that started sprouting up, the frog men. That's really all it was for me.

Gabrielle Galanek

At the time, Molly had just started going out with Shaheen and she'd seen the frog men and had her suspicions.


I didn't know that he was doing it. But then I guess once or twice we were walking around the city and one of these frogs was on the sidewalk. And I just started to walk by it. Shaheen goes, hey, what's that? And he did it in this way that I was like, uh-huh, this is the thing. But then I tried to accuse him of it and he just denied it.

Gabrielle Galanek

The night of the incident began as an utterly normal Sunday night.


We decided that we've been dating for like two weeks or so, and we're ready to have a party where Shaheen's going to meet some of my friends. And so we decided to have this dinner. And I had heard from other friends that Shaheen is like this great cook and that he makes this great chicken curry. So Shaheen calls me up and he's like, OK, I'm going to bring over the chicken. I want you to have these things and then he's like, do you have a good knife at your house? And I was like, you know, I don't really have a good knife. And he's like, you know what? My stepfather has got really nice knives and I'll just bring one over.

And so at the end of the night-- Shaheen had been staying over at my house occasionally and I just assumed he was going to stay at my house. It was like 12 o'clock at night or something. He's like, I've got to go. You know, I'm going to go. And I was like, you're going to leave now? Now? And he's like, yeah, I've got to go. Yeah, I have to go. Got to go to work early tomorrow morning. And I was like, OK, cool. That's fine. See you later. And I kind of felt a little shafted, like, what's going on?

Gabrielle Galanek

What's going on was that Shaheen was feeling euphoric. They had a great night and he decided he was ready to reveal his secret identity to Molly by spray painting some frog men on her block along the route she walks every day. So he puts on his rubber gloves and gets out his spray paint.


And so I put four or five of these on the ground. And I want to go do one more and I see two cars are speeding up the street. They were just moving. You could hear the motors, they were accelerating. And as I see them, I dropped my materials there and I get up and I just continue walking down the street. And sure enough, as the cars pull up I see it's like a Blazer police car and another squad car.

They've shined the lights on me and I stop and they say, how you doing, sir?

And I say, fine.

They say, where you coming from?

And I say, oh, my girlfriend's house.

Where's your car?

I say, my car's down the street.

And they say, OK, well, why isn't your car at your girlfriend's house?

And I said, well.

Where's your girlfriend's house?

And I said, uh. I just pointed because I didn't know her address at this point. And so my story's already falling apart. And this whole time I have these rubber gloves on my hands. They asked me, what about the gloves? What about the gloves? They say.

And I said, well, my friends and I have been painting at my girlfriend's house. We paint.

So they don't like this story and it's already coming apart. And they asked me if they can search the car. I was taking this law course in community college to get into school and the whole idea of having some sort of civil rights was something that I thought I'd want to try and test out. And I said, no, you can't search my car. And that took the whole confrontation up to the next step. The guys cuffed me.

They said, if you want to play hardball, you want to play tough, we'll play tough with you. And that was it. They held me there for about five minutes, got on their radio, came back and said, you're under arrest. And so I tried to kind of speak with them.

You know, what's the deal? Why am I under arrest here? What's happening? And I finally get out of the officer, well, we got a call from a woman who says you were in her yard and her dogs were barking and that you ran away. And I said, I'm sorry officer, I have no idea what you're talking about. I was in no yard. I heard no dogs barking. I've been in this neighborhood for a little while walking around. There was nothing.

And he says, oh yeah, so where have you've been?

And I was faced with this sort of decision of whether I should reveal and sort of start coming clean or not. And I chose the former and I said, well, look, I'm not a prowler. In fact, if you want to know what I'm doing, I've been painting on the sidewalk. And if you want to know where my stuff is, if you see right there on the corner there in front of the car there's a big blue mailbox and you'll find that there is several spray cans and a stencil. And that's what I've been using. If you go around this block you'll find that those are there as well.

So I could see this guy shaking his head, just being like, who is this dumb kid in the back of the car.

And he told me, he said, you don't need to say that. That wasn't very smart for you to say.

After a few hours another guy comes. And he invites me into his car, which is an unmarked Marquis kind of a car. And he puts me in the back and I get introduced to Chris Warner. And he says, special agent-- I believe he was a special agent-- Chris Warner from the FBI. And he says, would you like some heat? You know, turns the heat on. Like some music? And he puts on some soft rock or something. And I'm just like, what is going on here?

So I can now get a good look at my car. And what's going on there is both doors-- it's a three door car. Both doors are open. The back is open. And all the stuff is being pulled out of it. And there are four or five policemen there. And all these cars have their lights pointed at the car. The whole neighborhood is lit up from these flashing lights. And I see people taking stuff out, like very surgically and putting them into these Ziploc bags. And then what I see is that they have assembled what I vaguely make out is a collage and they're showing it around to each other.

Gabrielle Galanek



Photos from my car. And then it starts dawning on me that the photos that they're looking at were a set of photos that have just been floating around in the back of my car, a little group of photos that I took when I finished-- when I did the last trip to Afghanistan. It was an office relocation from Tajikistan to Shambe to Kabul. I hired a bunch of these like Russian truck driver in Tajikistan. We loaded all the equipment up from our office. And this is the first time these guys have been in Afghanistan, so it was this exuberant period for us.

And when we got to Kabul, we also went to a place called Chicken Street, which is a street that has woodwork and old artisan stuff and Russian stuff and just guns, old, British guns, Kalashnikovs. And we went into one of these stores with a bunch of guns in it, and my program coordinator wanted to put all this Afghan stuff on and dress like a Mujahideen and take photos. And he did it with a truck driver. And you know, they're totally vacation shots. If you had been in Disneyland you would have done the same thing. And so they got all donned up in this stuff, these sort of hats and these-- what do you call them? Straps of bullets, shoulders, and guns, and they took this series of photos.

And then it began to dawn on me that there was a whole new level to this investigation that's all of a sudden-- that I'm seeing this new level now. And it was like, oh, wow. The painting thing began to fade and I began to realize that there's all this other stuff in my car.

I had ministry of foreign affairs. When you're in Tajikistan you have to have special certification to be there from the government and there are these little cards. I had a few of those in my wallet. And my passport, it's an old passport that I've just been using for quite a while. And it's really an incriminating one if you don't know what I was doing, or why, or what kind of business I was in.

And if you thumbed through this passport, I mean, there are visas from Tajikistan, several visas in Turkey. This attachment, there's a visa from Kazakhstan, Kabul International Airport, Republic of Korea, Islamic Republic of Pakistan. They pull out the knife, my chicken knife. It's this big, German chef's knife. And they're pulling this thing out and I see them handing it around to each other. I just see like every check on their book. It's like, you know, check, check, every suspicious thing that could possibly have been there, was.

Gabrielle Galanek

They take Shaheen to the police precinct and usher him into a special interrogation room. In the room are two other FBI agents.


There's one FBI agent who looks completely disheveled. He has a tie on, but his collar is all stuck up on one end and it's up on the back. And his hair is disheveled and his shirt's coming out. These poor guys, these FBI guys have been called up from Albuquerque, which is an hour away.

Then they sort of the began the questions and about two minutes into it, the door knocks and a gentleman walks in. And everybody stands up. And this guy's dressed very well, short hair. He's got a nice black suit on, black shoes. I mean, good to go. And he introduces himself as Brian of the Secret Service. And they all shake his hand, shake his hand, shake his hand. He looks at me, I'm kind of dumbfounded. He's like, you know, this is the guy who's brought us in here. He finds a seat in the corner of the room behind everybody. He sits down, opens up his little notebook, crosses his legs and says, don't mind me, guys. Go ahead.

And the questions. Then they start asking these questions. And one of the first questions they ask is about Molly. They want to know where she lives. And I don't even really know where she lives.


You knew where I lived.


I knew where you lived, but I couldn't give the street address and the number.

I described to them where she lives and one of the officers, this FBI guy say, I think I got it. I'm going to go down there.


Suddenly, I wake up and I just-- I wake up to the sound of like someone pounding on my door. Like, pound, pound, pound. And I'm freaking out. I'm really, really nervous and I'm shaking really hard, like something's going on. And this guy yells, FBI. And he put a badge against the window. They basically say, we want to ask you a few questions about tonight. What happened? We know you had a party and we need to know who was here.

And I said, oh, my friends from work and my boyfriend.

Who is your boyfriend?

And I told them his name.

What's his last name?

And I said, I don't know. I don't know his last name at this point.

And they're kind of like, you don't know your boyfriend's last name?

And I'm like, OK, he's not my boyfriend.

How much do you know about this guy? What do you know about him?

And they just launch into this series of questions. Has he ever touched your computer?

And I'm like, well, I just got a new computer actually and yes. I'm thinking in my head, yes, he's touched my computer. Like he helped me program it. And he helped me put the software on it. And I'm like, yeah, I mean, we use my computer all the time was my answer to the question.

He's like, has he ever used your computer alone?

And I was like, no, I don't think so. No?

And then, do you know if he likes flight simulator games? Is he obsessive about planes?

And the funny thing is that Shaheen really loves planes and he had told me a little bit about that. And I was like, I really don't know. I just don't know. I'm sorry, I don't know.

They asked me if I had been intimate with him. And I said, are you asking me if I've slept with him or not?

They're like, well, in a way, yes.

And I kind of felt like, is the FBI wondering if I'm using protection or something?

And then they start asking the same questions over and over and try to get me to slip up. And also, I've only been dating him for two weeks and I don't really know that much about him. And in the back of my head I'm going, oh my God. Maybe I am dating a terrorist. You don't know. Like I said, I never outright lied, but I skirted the truth 20 times in my conversation with the FBI and I don't know why. I just believed him. That's what's really bizarre about the situation. To some extent, maybe that's dangerous.

I could have just said, I don't know this guy. I'm not involved. But I put myself right in there when I made the decision to try to show them who I thought he was. And to do that against sort of the grain of maybe what I should have done. You know, it's really hard to know.

And finally, they left and it's Monday morning and my alarm is ringing as they're walking out the door. I have to go to work and go to school and I don't know what to do. And I keep asking them again and again, where is he? Where have you taken him? They won't give me any information except he's arrested and he's in jail. And I need to calm down, so I get out of the house and I start walking around. And there's all these new frogs, like all around my walk. And that moment I'm like, OK, I know it's him.

Gabrielle Galanek

Back at the station, Chris from the FBI and Brian from the Secret Service, and the other investigators keep questioning Shaheen. They ask if they can search his house. He asked what would happen if he said no. They tell him they can get a warrant out of DC in 10 minutes. He agrees to the search.

They tell him they want to check out his car one more time before they go.


So we're sitting in this big SUV in the impound lot and I'm looking at my car. And Chris abruptly interrupts our conversation and turns to speak with Brian. And there's some murmuring going on. And Chris leans back over to me and in his hand he has this flyer. And Chris says, so what do we have here? And he folds opens this flyer and the flyer is-- the feeling in Santa Fe around Iraq was that we should not have gone to war with Iraq and that America's war with Iraq was something that was being aggressively pushed by a small group of people within the administration. And that one of the central figures in that group was Donald Rumsfeld. Donald Rumsfeld has a house in Taos, New Mexico. And this is the first time I had heard of it.

I actually was just riding my bike downtown and somebody handed me this flyer. I had gotten on my bike and I briefly looked at it and I nowhere to put it, so I just threw it in my backpack. And the flyer ended up in the back of my car.

And so they said, what do we have here? Well, it was a picture of Donald Rumsfeld's head, a real picture of his head. I believe it was in a pile of skulls. And it was something like, crimes against humanity. Don't go to Iraq. You know, stuff like this. And there's going to be a protest staged at his house. When this thing opened up and I looked at it, I swallowed hard and I was like, yes, this is kind of-- this doesn't look good. And I can see how this doesn't look good. But come on, guys. I mean, is it against the law to have a flyer? And they're like, no, it's totally your right.

And they said, well, what do you think about Donald Rumsfeld? Brian said this. What would you do if you met Donald Rumsfeld?

And I said, I'd question him.

What kind of questions? Then they started getting into this line of questioning of, would you want to hurt him? Or do you have any violent inclinations towards him?

And I was like, whoa, guys. Chill out. They're baiting me. I'm beginning to get aggravated in this situation. I'm like, I don't agree with Donald Rumsfeld. I strongly disagree with him.

And they're saying, well, what do you know? What do you know about Donald Rumsfeld?

And I'm saying, not much. And then, something does come up.

I know that his daughter-- they both perk up. I know that his daughter lives in Santa Fe and his granddaughter goes to school here. So I said that and I said-- And both Brian and Chris, they're like, and what else? What else do you know about her? And I was like, well, nothing else guys. And they are just digging what I'm saying. They're like, Donald Rumsfeld, uh huh. His daughter, uh huh, his granddaughter uh huh. OK.

Gabrielle Galanek

They head to Shaheen's place, where they confiscate his computer, his CD and DVD collections, and various papers that are lying around. They say they'll be in touch and turn him over to Santa Fe police, who take him straight to jail. He's there about 10 hours before he's finally sprung. Molly's there waiting for him. The FBI still has all Shaheen's stuff and they start going through it, calling him to the office to talk about what they're finding. They're especially curious about emails they've read on his computer, emails about money transfers of thousands of dollars from an account in Dubai.

These take him a while to explain. He has to make them understand how aid organizations do their work. How you get cash into a country like Afghanistan, where there are no banks.

Meanwhile, Molly's getting checked out as well. One day, two investigators show up at her fourth grade classroom and after some questioning, take her out to her car.


There's a bumper sticker on the back of my car that said-- I think it said, "It's not unpatriotic to disagree." And I sort of tried to explain that to them. I said, no, really, what this is saying is that I believe in democracy. I believe in the ideals this country is set up on. They kind of shook their heads and wrote down the exact language of the bumper sticker and there was a little www dot something com. You know, go to this website. They wrote all this information down and he said that they would be checking it out.

And then they sort of said, well, I guess that's everything. You can go now.

Gabrielle Galanek

As the weeks passed, Shaheen's story is checking out. And after a while, Chris is calling Shaheen in just to chat.


We got to a certain point where we had developed a relationship, Chris and I, I think. I mean, I would be interested to hear his side of the story. But we were at a point where I felt comfortable talking and so did Chris. And we discussed all sorts of things, like politics and government. And I think that the FBI may have felt that I had information that may have been useful to them in some regard. And they said that outright during one encounter.

I was asked whether or not I would be interested in being paid. I was told that there are some people who had money who may be able to pay me for some information that I may be able to provide. And they asked if I would be interested in doing that. In all frankness, I thought they were just joking. And I couldn't really conceive in what capacity I would work in. But it was clear that they saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.

I was asked, do you want to go to Afghanistan? You know, let's go to Afghanistan together was the way that it was phrased. And I said, are you kidding? And in my manner, sort of as a joke I said, you're going to have to grow a beard if you want to go to Afghanistan. And the officer looked me straight in the face and said, give me a week.

I think they thought that I may have known about people, about groups of people, who had intentions. I mean, I think they thought that I could give them a key to al-Qaeda, or somebody involved with it. I mean, they were at war. And this is what they told me, you know, Shaheen, we're at war here. And we need to really use everything at our disposal.

I had the feeling from them of like, you're really at a loss. You don't speak the language. All the agents that I looked at were pretty much home boys. To the point where I walked into Chris's office and I may be wrong on this, but I could have swore that I saw a book about etiquette in the Muslim world. And I don't take myself to be representative of the Muslim world. I'm not religious at all. But I think for people who don't really know how to interact or who are with it, I am. So those are the circumstances around which it seemed like they were looking for more information. That changed as they got to know me better and they realized, you know what? This guy's as dumb as he looks and as ignorant as he looks. Once that was clear to them, then the trajectory of our discussion sort of shifted back into let's get to the bottom of this.

This period of me going into the FBI office and talking about my life and this sort of relationship that developed lasted for about three and a half months. And the fact that everything that I'm saying, frankly, just totally checks out. There's nothing they can get on me. Except the painting.

When we sit down he asks me. Every time I was going in there to sit with him he'd ask me, so what about the painting? Can you tell me a bit more about the painting? We found another one in this neighborhood. So you were all over the city?

I said, well, yeah. I was doing that.

And what were you doing in this neighborhood? And he would say, I am going to tell you something that you really shouldn't know. I think this case has reached Donald Rumsfeld's desk. And I really wouldn't be surprised to hear the President saw it. You need to understand, Shaheen, that this case is really-- they want me to close the book on this, or to close the case I believe is what he said. What he meant was they really want me to find something that's incriminating in your case. And you need to understand that.

Gabrielle Galanek

Chris tells Shaheen that the higher ups in Washington will probably be convinced to drop the investigation if he takes a lie detector test. In the beginning, he's not sure but he finally agrees and brings Molly along on the day of the polygraph.


And I sat in the office with the FBI agent that led the investigation. And then I felt like I couldn't ask him anything. I felt like if he was going to talk to me then he was going to talk to me. And I had a newspaper on my lap and I sort of was pretending to read it, but feeling nervous about what was going on in the other room. And finally, he looks over and he says, so are you guys going anywhere for Christmas? And I said, well, I think the two of us are going to go to Boston where my family is and I don't celebrate Christmas. And he sort of perked up and he looked at me and he said, what do you celebrate then? And I said, well, I celebrate Hanukkah. And this huge smile just erupted on his face. He started chuckling. And I said, is that funny? He said, it's just the perfect ending to this case. Another reason to close this case. Our big terrorist, our big Afghan terrorist would-be Muslim has this nice Jewish girlfriend from Boston.


So the polygraph's done and that's sort of the end of that chapter is what I'm thinking. And now I have to defend myself against this in Sante Fe city court.

Gabrielle Galanek

Remember, he's still got two misdemeanor charges from the first night: prowling and destroying public property with the painting he was doing everywhere, the painting of the frog men. He doesn't have money for a lawyer, so he gets a copy of the police records with the idea that he could go talk to the woman whose dog barked that night, the woman who made the initial phone call to the police. Maybe he could get her to drop the prowling charge. He heads out to find her house.


And so I'm cruising around the neighborhood with these records in hand. And I'm in the same neighborhood where those marks are. And I see the address here and I end up at this little house at the end of this little dirt road. It's kind of a Spanish style, Colonial style, Adobe house. Kind of a sprawling little home. A sprawling large home, actually.

And I go walk into the gate and there's a big dog at the door. It's a large, white dog that is initially kind of aggressive. And I'm thinking, how am I going to get through this? There are two big SUVs in the driveway. And I kind of gesture to the dog. And the dog comes up to me very friendly. And so I pat the dog and I throw the dog a stick. And that's it, we were friends from there. I'm like, all right, great.

So I walk into the front yard of this area and I'm looking in through these sliding glass doors. I'm looking into a beautiful kitchen. And nobody is there. And I knock on the glass. To this point I haven't looked at who this person is. And so I finally look down on the record just as I'm glancing through it. And I look on and there is this victim information and I see the address. You know, she's a woman. She's white. She's 145 pounds. She's non-Hispanic. Here's her social security number. She's 5 foot 6, born in 1956.

And I go and knock on the door. And I knock on the door and I look at the name and it says Rumsfeld, Valerie. And I [BLEEP] myself.

I literally have a little spasm right there. Valerie Rumsfeld. In that moment, it just hits me like a brick. All the pieces begin to come together. I understand why-- [SNAP] the painting. I get it. This painting was to them, like some sort of terrorist scheme. It was targeting the neighborhood for an aerial bombardment or something. Who knows what it was? You know, some private method of communication between terrorists or something. It all comes together. It's the painting.

And so that realization dawns on me and I look at the dog all of a sudden in a new light and I think, oh my God. This is the dog that Donald Rumsfeld probably takes to Taos with him and plays fetch with. And I get these quivers in my hand. I'm thinking, I just pet the dog that Donald Rumsfeld pets. And this dog jumps up on Donald Rumsfeld's lap late in the night when they're sitting smoking a cigar and watching the game. It's just this eerie, eerie feeling comes over me. And I'm way too close for comfort all of a sudden. I just feel like I've really stepped into a dangerous situation.

And I take a step back and I'm looking up on the roof and I see these antennas that are sprouting out from a pile of snow right by the chimney. And all of a sudden I kind of get a second feeling of ooziness, which is I'm probably being watched. And I walk off and get into my car and immediately call Chris.

I say, Chris, you're not going to believe this, but I'm here looking at the offense report and I'm looking at the person who lodged that complaint and it says Valerie Rumsfeld.

And he's like, now, do you understand why we were so suspicious about you?

I'm like, yes, I finally understand. I can't believe this. I can't believe this. And I said, yeah, I'm here right here outside of her driveway. And I'm going to go speak with her.

And he says, you're what?

And I said, well, I'm here. I want to go speak with her.

And he says, Shaheen, get out of the driveway now. Take your car, drive immediately. Leave that neighborhood. And he's like, call me when you're done.

And I was like, I don't know what the problem is with this guy. I get in my car, I move out of there, I call him up again.

And he's like, what the hell are you doing there, first of all? He says, take my advice. Don't ever, ever go in that neighborhood. Don't speak to Valerie. Don't try and find her. Don't go to her house. Don't mention her name. You need to stay as far away from this person as possible. Your case is bad enough. So he just said, you know, listen, man. I'm sorry this has happened. This for me was one of the worst cases of wrong time, wrong place, doing the wrong thing, all the wrong circumstances, and you got hung for it. Everything fit the profile. Everything. If you had been a bit less forthcoming, anything could have happened. But by just totally, literally bending over, I saved myself.

Gabrielle Galanek

Shaheen did have to go to court for the prowling charge, which got dropped for lack of evidence, and the spray painting. For that, he got sentenced to 48 hours of community service. He fulfilled it by wrapping Christmas presents at the local Salvation Army.


I've heard that Chris calls this a success story. And I think that in many ways, it can be looked at as a success story. The FBI's role in it was really to clear my name, in a sense.

Gabrielle Galanek

But even though the FBI cleared him, that happened after his name was already circulated to other agencies, which still have him on terrorist watch lists. And it's not clear how to get off. He still gets stopped at the airport.


One time I was coming back from a trip in Brazil and they got us at the immigration check, at the passport area. And they said, we got him, four or five police officers. And they led me off into a special room. And I was at a desk and an officer was there sort of-- he printed something out about my case that he was going to go to give to another officer. And the printout-- it's one of these old sort of dot matrix printers and [PRINTER NOISE] The paper comes up and it said, suspected international terrorist. And then it was just like, holy cow.

And I've been stopped by customs, federal customs agents in Miami as well. That was a long eight-hour ordeal where they had to call up the FBI. So those are the sorts of things that I'm worried about.

Gabrielle Galanek

Shaheen says he's more careful about everything now. He avoids certain topics on the phone or in email. He didn't go with friends to protest at the Republican Convention because he was afraid of getting stopped by the police. He feels like he could get sucked into another misunderstanding and maybe not find his way out. Lots of people don't. Like Molly says, if you're spray painting one minute and thrown on a watch list of international terrorists the next, you tend to stop taking chances.

Ira Glass

Gabrielle Galanek recently graduated with her master's from Columbia University in New York.


Coming up, David Sedaris explains why baboons and cats don't get together and chat more often. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two: Cat Got Your Tongue

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Not What I Meant, stories of misunderstandings, and how they happen, and where they can lead that you might not expect. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act two, Cat Got Your Tongue. David Sedaris has this story of misunderstanding in a very common kind of work situation. This is one of a series of fables that he's been writing lately. He was recorded on stage at UCLA's Royce Hall in a recent talk there.

David Sedaris

The cat had a party to attend and went to the baboon to get herself groomed.

What kind of party? The baboon asked. And she massaged the cat's neck in order to relax her, the way she did with all her customers. Will there be food? The baboon asked.

Something, the cat sighed. I just don't know what.

Of course, it's hard, the baboon said. Everybody eating different things. You got one who likes leaves and another that can't stand the sight of them. Folks has gotten so picky nowadays I just lay out some peanuts and figure they either eat them or they don't.

Now, I wouldn't like a peanut, the cat said. Not at all.

Well, I guess you just have drinks then. The trick is knowing when to stop.

That's never been a problem for me, the cat boasted. I drink until I'm full and then I push myself away from the table. Always have.

Well, you got some sense then, not like some of them around here. The baboon picked a flea from the cat's head and stuck it gingerly between her teeth. Take this wedding I went to last Saturday, I think it was, a couple of marsh rabbits got married. You probably heard about it.

The cat nodded.

Now I like a church service, but this was one of those write your own vows sorts of things. Neither of them never picked up a pen in their life, but all of a sudden they're poets, right? Like that's all it takes is being in love.

My husband and I wrote our own vows, the cat said, defensively.

Sure you did, but you probably had something to say, not like these marsh rabbits carrying on that their love was like a tender sapling or some damn thing. And all the while, they had this squirrel off to the side, plucking at a harp I think it was.

I had a harp player at my wedding, the cat said. And it was lovely.

I bet it was, but you probably hired a professional, someone who could really play. This squirrel, I don't think she'd ever taken a lesson in her life. Just clawed at those strings, almost like she's mad at them.

Well, I'm sure she tried her best, the cat said.

The baboon nodded and smiled, the way one must in the service industry. She'd planned to tell a story about a drunken marsh rabbit, the brother of the groom at last week's wedding, but there was no point in it now. Not with this client anyway. Whatever she said, the cat disagreed with. And unless she found a patch of common ground, she was sure to lose her tip.

You know, she said cleaning a scab off the cat's neck, I hate dogs. Simply cannot stand them.

What makes you bring that up? The cat asked.

Just thinking. Some kind of Spaniel walked in yesterday asking for a shampoo and I sent him packing. I said, I don't care how much money you have, I'm not making conversation with anyone who licks his own ass. And the moment she said it, she realized her mistake.

Now what's wrong with that? The cat said. It's good to have a clean anus. Why, I lick mine at least five times a day.

And I admire you for it, the baboon said. But you're not a dog.


On a cat it's classy, the baboon said. There's a grace to it. But a dog, you know the way they hunker over, legs going every which way.

Well, yes, the cat said. I suppose you have a point.

Then they slobber and drool all over everything, and what they don't get wet they chew to pieces.

That they do, the cat chuckled. And the baboon relaxed and searched her memory for a slanderous dog story. The collie, the German shepherd, the spaniel she claimed to have turned away, they were all good friends of hers and faithful clients. But what would it hurt to pretend otherwise and draw that fine line between licking ass and simply kissing it?

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books, including Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and a collection of short stories by other people that he curated called Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.

Act Three: Romance Languages

Ira Glass

Act three, Romance Languages.

This is a story of misunderstandings as a force for good in the world. Ben was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, and was frustrated because although there were lots of American students around, it was hard for him to meet and talk and get to know Italians.

Then one day he sees a flyer, an Italian basketball team is looking for an American to coach them. Ben figures, he coached basketball at Jewish summer camp, right? He played lots of basketball, right? He could do that. He's an American. So he answers the ad.

Ben Karlin

I'd been there, this is probably two and a half months into speaking Italian. So really, just like a rudimentary, functional Italian.

Ira Glass


Ben Karlin

So I go meet with this guy, Lorenzo, and this guy Luka. And we meet in this cafe and I sit down. It's kind of that weird, it's not quite an interview, it's not quite friends meeting. And I start telling them about my experience coaching basketball in the states. And they just started looking at me with his quizzical look on their face. And I think it's because my Italian is so bad that I'm probably not explaining myself very well. And they basically say, what are you talking about? We're looking for a football coach.

That is like the moment where I kind of-- it's the kind of like that nexus where optimism becomes delusion. Where I probably should have just said, well, I'd love to help you out guys, but I can't do it. I don't know anything about football. But instead I kind of did a slow nod and said, yeah, I think I could do that. Yeah, football. Yeah, that's great.

Ira Glass

So you had played no football.

Ben Karlin

No football. And I should just point out that my mom would not-- there were two things my mom would not let me do when I was a kid, and there was the same reason for both. She would not let me be a Cub Scout and she would not let me play Pop Warner football. And the reason for both was that she called them Hitler Youth.

Ira Glass


Ben Karlin

She did it jokingly.

Ira Glass

That is hard line.

Ben Karlin

She just did not want me to participate in those types of things.

Ira Glass

She literally like raised the specter of the brown shirts.

Ben Karlin

My mom still had enough of that kind of Jewish immigrant thing going on where she just didn't think Jews did things like Cub Scouts, and Boy Scouts, and camped, and all that stuff.

Ira Glass

So anyway, the guys from the team invite Ben to come to their next practice. And Ben, perhaps sensing the disaster that's about to take place, Ben has the presence of mind to ask his friend, Aaron, to come with him. Aaron had not only played football, but he played football in high school under Mouse Davis, the former college coach who's best known as the architect of something called the run-and-shoot offense.

So together one day they take a long ride out to the industrial outskirts of the city to the football field.

Ben Karlin

And there is the football team, the Florence Renegades they are called. And the ages of the players are probably 19 to 40. I think the oldest guy was 40. And it was definitely like a rag-tag outfit, but they could still kick our ass. So we'd kind of decided the first thing we need to do is to split up the team into offense and defense. He's going to go take the offense and run them through a series of drills, and I'll take the defense.

It was kind of at this moment where I realized I just don't know exactly what I'm going to do with these people because if you ask me well, what's a football drill? Like I really wouldn't know. I guess like hitting the tackling dummy is a drill. But I don't know what that's called. I guess it's called hitting the tackling dummy.

Ira Glass

And you only know that because you've seen that in the movies?

Ben Karlin

I've seen that in The Longest Yard. They hit the dummy quite hard. So I take the defense over to their part of the field and I say, OK, well, why don't you do your warm ups, do some drills, and I'll just kind of observe. And I know that in this situation it's appropriate for me to stand there with my arms folded and watch. So that's what I knew I was going to do.

So they line up, probably about-- and again, my Italian is really quite limited. They line up and there's about maybe a dozen or 10 people on the defense. They line up facing the defensive captain, and the defensive captain starts screaming at them. Die Jew, die Jew, die Jew. And they all start running in place and diving onto the ground.

Ira Glass

Die Jew?

Ben Karlin

Die Jew. And I just stood there watching them scream this over and over again, probably like 50 times.

Ira Glass

And is there a part of you where like your blood is running a little cold?

Ben Karlin

Well, I don't feel threatened or anything like that. But I definitely feel like, what is going on here? Is this like some thing that I've just like kind of run up against the wall of like this is like what it's like in another country? And you know, I grew up in a town that was 20% Jewish, so maybe I didn't experience this, but this is what the rest of the world is like.

Ira Glass

Is there somewhere in your mind the thought that they are messing with you? That they've totally sussed out this situation, they know you don't know what you're doing, and they're just screwing with you now?

Ben Karlin

No, I didn't think that for a minute. I thought two things. One, I thought-- I hoped that that is Italian. That is the Italian language. It just happens to have a coincidental kind of feel to it to someone who speaks English, let alone a Jewish American.

And the other thing I thought was maybe there's this language of sports that people use to motivate each other and maybe this is the thing that Italians do to get pumped up and get psyched. I doubted it, but because a lot of times when you see a Japanese t-shirt that has a misquoted American phrase or something like that? So I thought maybe they didn't realize that this is a terrible thing to say. They just think it's kind of cute.

And so I go back over to Aaron and his Italian is about as good as mine, maybe a little better. And I'm like, hey, man, does die Jew mean something? Because they were just screaming that like you wouldn't believe. And they thought by the way, that we were talking football strategy. And instead, we're just trying to figure out what they were saying. And then we kind of realize like die means you get in Italian. And Jew means down. So what they were really saying was get down, get down, get down. And we kind of stumbled upon figuring that out together. And we're like, oh man, that's good. Listen, I'm glad we figured that out, but I'm not coaching this football team. Sorry.

Ira Glass

So he quit. His friend Aaron took over the team and the great thing about a language barrier is Ben never, ever had to say, I don't know anything about football. He never had to say, I have no business here and I had no business here from the start.

Ben Karlin

The lack of the ability to truly communicate on a one to one basis, really served me very well in this situation. Because you could always write things off to misunderstanding. And in this situation, it worked very well because it kind of allowed everyone to kind of exit the situation with pride and dignity intact.

Ira Glass

God, what a shame we don't have that in our daily lives.

Ben Karlin

I know. Well, I got to tell you, I have an Italian girlfriend. She speaks English quite well because she's been here many years now. But especially at the beginning, there were many, many, many, misunderstandings. And during the courting process especially, she was not nearly as interested in me as I was in her. And I made just blunder after blunder with the Italian language trying to be cute and charming.

And probably the worst one-- oh man-- was Christmas. It was our first Christmas. And I wanted to get her something really nice, so I got her a spa package type of thing, like a nice day of like massage and a facial and just like a whole kind of day at this spa here in New York.

And we always had this kind of like cutesy, spar-y kind of dynamic between us where I would say-- what I thought I was saying was, oh, you're so bad. Not like naughty. It's not like that, but it's just like there are words in Italian that don't quite translate exactly over to English. But from what I understood, I was saying, like, oh, you're so bad. It's like saying you're mean, but not saying you're mean.

So I thought on the little card I would write that phrase, which Merry Christmas, Buon Natale. [SPEAKING ITALIAN]. And so what I thought I was writing was Merry Christmas, but you're still bad. As it turns out, however, what I really wrote was Merry Christmas, but you're still ugly.

So I'm giving her this spa package for like a facial and everything like that. And I'm telling her, like listen, you need to do some work, sister.

Ira Glass

And in the first moment that she opens the card, did she try to pass it off, or did she instantly say to you--

Ben Karlin

Immediately on her face. Immediately. And it was just one of those like, what? What? No.

Ira Glass

But they resolve it, pretty easily and for exactly the same reason that things resolved with the football team so simply. They just chalked it up to a force beyond their control. The bullying force that is the nouns and verbs and adjectives of somebody else's language, which in a relationship Ben says, can actually lead people to smoother sailing through the misunderstandings that happen between any two people.

Ben Karlin

Whenever there's a miscommunication, you always have to allow for the possibility that that's not really what they meant, it's just you're running up against the limitations of language. It kind of gives you a grace that you have to kind of give someone the benefit of the doubt. And it's actually a really nice thing.

Ira Glass

Ben Karlin is executive producer at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and a co-author of the book America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy in Action, which comes out in paperback later this month.


Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself, with S Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes and Sarah Koenig. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Kevin Clark, Laura Bello, Seth Lind, Sativa January, and Cathy Hoang.


Our website,, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free, or buy CDs of them.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.


WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who has a message for all the people who have been sitting in their cars in front of their houses waiting till the end of this show.


Get out of the driveway now.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.


PRI, Public Radio International.