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A quick warning. There are curse words that are unbeaped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife. Org. The question started right after Tobin and his husband moved to the Bay Area and got a house together. Tobin's family was pretty excited about this. They all lived within an hour. They brought meals over for weeks. His mom bought them shades. But this question popped up.


The first time I noticed it happening, it was with my aunt. I where she was like, Oh, which one of you is handy? Is one of you handy? And I was just like, Why does she want to know that? Why does she care? I had feelings about it, and I couldn't tell why. Then it just kept happening with other family members. They would be talking about like, Oh, you guys moved in together into this house. Which one of you is handy? And on its face, it was like, Oh, we know when you're in a house, there's a lot of things to fix and a lot of things to do. But it felt like there was something else happening there, and it bothered me.


Something else there, like there was a question underneath the question that they were trying to get the answer to.


Yeah, there was something else trying to be figured out. I don't know, the more I thought about it and why I was having feelings about it, it was this weird aha moment of like, Oh, I think you're asking who the man is in my relationship.


Right. You're both men. Yes. But one of you is really the man.


Yes. Yeah.


Then, when Tobin would tell them that it was his husband who was the handy one, he felt like he was just giving them ammunition to put a picture of their relationship that just bugged him, like they were being sized up into familiar categories. Would you view as the husband? Would you view as the wife?


It was weird because whenever they would ask it, I could feel myself getting defensive. I didn't want to give them that picture. I think part of my defensiveness came from, I think, well, oh, man, not to take us in a whole other direction, but if you spend any amount of time in the closet- In the closet.


In the closet? For Dopen, that means middle school and high school.


I think you're afraid of being found out at all as being effeminate in any way. I know for me, I was very conscious of if anyone could detect feminine traits about me and then figure out if I was gay or not. I do think that myself and a lot of gay men carry that around for the rest of your life. I think that comes up in having to answer a question like this also.


Yeah. Yeah, it's funny because it's this innocent question, and then really, underneath it, it's like there's a bomb waiting to go off, actually. There's so many feelings.


Yeah, it feels like it hits on a thing, at least for me, that I spent a lot of time as a kid running from or spent a lot of time trying to not have to answer. How masculine am I? And is somebody else more masculine than I am? I do want to make room for the idea that they could have meant none of this. Absolutely none of this.


Did you address it directly with any of them?


No, because that would be bonkers. To say, Oh, you asked me who's handy. You're trying to say I'm not a man. The leap in logic to say that outright is so huge.


What a day in our program. Questions that contain other secret questions inside of them. Questions that are wolves in sheep's clothing in all kinds of situations that we've all been in, in dating, in talking to strangers, in dealing with the saddest things that ever happened to us. And more. I'm WBEZ Chicago. It's This American Life. I'm Eric Glass. Stay with us. Okay, so instead of four different acts today, what we're going to do is we're going to present the show as four questions. Here's the first one. Question. Tell me how you feel about this. So Tobin, who you just heard, is one of the editors here at our show. And really, the idea for today's program came out of a conversation that happened at a staff meeting. And what happened was we all got talking about these question traps, where it seems like somebody is asking about one thing, but the question is a proxy for trying to figure out something else. Tobin will explain more.


The conversation was about the questions people ask on first dates, the kind that force who someone really is out into the open, maybe even without them realizing. One such question I didn't even know was a thing, but a few of my coworkers said that for Black women of a certain age, it's having a renaissance. Emmanuelle, our executive editor, asks it this way.


What do you think of Beyoncé? It was a question that I found myself trying to ask basically a lot on first dates because it told me a lot about them. It's a question that tells you, one, in some ways, how they feel about a power of a Black woman. It's a question that tells you how they think about Black women in general, a little bit to me. And that if you feel the need to put her down or say something negative about her, it's a real turn off. It's like a red flag, basically.


They describe her singing style as catawalling or like, Oh, she's just scratching.


Bim, another producer, has also asked this question on many a date.


All these words that have double meanings if you're a woman and also if you're a Black woman, I'm just like, All right, so you don't like loud people. Okay, That means you don't like me.


Could you tell me about some specific times that you've asked the Beyoncé question and what the guy's response was and what it told you?


First date, bar date, pretty standard. Beyoncé actually came on in the bar in the background. I was like, Oh, what do you think about Beyoncé? And he was like, I don't understand what the big deal is about her. Women act like they're in a cult or something, and it's like they seem like crazy. I was like, Oh, well, I really like her, and I don't really think I'm in a cult.


Emmanuel walked the guy through all the reasons Beyoncé is, in fact, pretty great. But the guy didn't budge.


No, he did not Didn't care to. And maybe didn't care to hear me talk in general is what it seemed like.


They did not go out again because, well, you could say he was unapologetic when he fucked up the night. That's a play on a Beyoncé Lyric, by the way. Sorry, couldn't help myself. Anyway, B. A. Parker, who's also been on the show, she said for her, it doesn't even have to be Beyoncé. Any well-known Black woman does the trick.


She says Serena Williams, and they say, Oh, I think she's overrated. Or if you say Jada Pink, it's like, Oh, she's too masculine, or she's ruining Will Smith's life. She's controlling him. Or how you feel about Lizzo? They're like, Oh, she's a cover ass.


I bring up a Black female celebrity to get their opinion on them, and it usually becomes a litmus test for how they would treat me as a partner, how they would view me as a person.


But the Beyoncé question, she agrees, is the most potent because the answer can really tell you if you should be crazy in love or putting everything he owns in a box to the left. Again, I am so sorry. The thing about a bunch of people using the same trick, though, is that eventually people, in this case, men, might catch on. Are you aware of the Beyoncé question?


Yes, I am aware of the Beyoncé question.


Emmanuel Joci, producer and man at the show. Have you experienced this?


Yes, I've experienced it many times.


He told me about date he was on where they started talking about musicals, and the movie version of Dreamgirls came up. And thinking he was just answering a question about the movie, Emmanuel was honest. He said Beyoncé was just okay in that. He didn't realize he was answering the wrong question.


And I was just digging a hole. She was just like, The only answer to being asked about Beyoncé is that, yes, she's fantastic.


She's amazing.


Nobody can do what she does.


It was only later that he learned from another guy friend why he, as a black man, should really only answer one way.


I remember my friend saying, basically, that is the question black women will ask you to determine if you really like black women. Once it was explained to me, I totally understood where people were coming from, and I understood what the purpose of that question was.


In some cases, the Beyoncé question is like an agreed-upon farce, where both parties know they're talking in code. Parker was recently on a date. She mentioned Beyoncé's Black as King film.


And he was like, I don't know what to say here because I like talking to you, but I don't love Beyoncé, and I don't want you to be mad at me.


He knew it was a trap.


He did know it was a trap.


And how did you respond?


I was like, What are you talking about? What are you? And he was like, I know girls do this. And I was like, You're right. And I'm sorry. I apologize. And I was like, Well, I guess that's the right answer. So we had a couple more dates.


Of course, there are other questions like the Beyoncé one. Little traps we set on dates, hoping the other person doesn't fall in or hoping they do. One that made the news recently, which may or may not be true. According to an old classmate, Governor Ron DeSantis would ask dates if they liked Thai food. But And this is key. He'd pronounce it Thai food. And if they said, No, it's Thai food, not Thai, he'd ditch the date. It was his way of testing if they correct him, which he did not want. I don't know. Sounds like a test I'd be grateful to fail, but that's just me. Anyway, I talked to a bunch of other people about their question traps. Kelsey, in Minnesota, asked her dates about their favorite Tom Hanks movies. She said he's been in so many movies across multiple genres. The answer is like a personality test. Toy Story, for example, tells her there's a stunted adolescence thing going on. Sarah in Tampa said when she started to get a weird vibe, she'd ask, What's your favorite conspiracy theory? Most people would keep their answers light-hearted, but occasionally, someone would go all in.


One guy started talking all about Nazi separatists. She's Jewish, so you know, a deal breaker. But not all question traps are subtle. There's another genre that I was surprised anyone fell for. The question that seemed covered in yellow caution tape and a sign that said, This is a trap. This one comes from Vivian in Iowa. After her husband died in 2016, she found herself back out on the dating scene. Her question on a date was, If your ex walked by right now with her new partner, what would you do? Which was her way of asking a much more interesting question, How fucked up was your last relationship?


First time I did it, the guy said I would punch him and give her a piece of my march.


Oh, my God.


Exactly. We had just sat down to have a nice lunch on a Sunday afternoon, so I'm like, Do I get up and go? That's when the story came out of how he was still about a couple of weeks away from going to court for finalizing his divorce. It had been a 38-year relationship, and he found out she had been cheating for most of the time. In a In a completely serendipitous way. She gave him an old phone that she had wiped, and when she downloaded the cloud, it downloaded into his phone, too. That's how he found out.


Wow, you got so much information from that one question.


You got to make it efficient. Why? Draw it out.


I was shocked. This question is so clearly, How bad was your last breakup? Do I have anything to worry about? But something about turning it into a fun little icebreaker made these guys open up.


There was another guy that said, Well, we would have to leave immediately because I don't want to see them. My reply was, You don't want to see them or you don't want them to see us.


What was his response?


Oh, he never answered directly, but I knew then that he was still in a relationship.


With her now husband, they met at a widow's support group. He talked about his loneliness and being a single parent. They just got each other. She knew the question, What would you do if your ex showed up? Would not be right for this nice guy who had just lost his wife. She wasn't going to ask that. The last person I talked to was Jessica. She teaches ESL classes in Atlanta. What's your go-to question?


Do you believe in ghosts?


Ghosts? I bet you didn't see that one coming, did you? Do you believe in ghosts? Here's how Jessica says it works.


There is no one right answer. It just matters that you and your partner have the same answer, essentially, at its core. Your mind's work in a similar way.


Was there ever a time that you asked the ghost question, the person answered differently than you, and you went ahead and dated that person anyway? And how did that go?




I was engaged before I married my husband now.


And the ghost question really should have been my get the fuck out moment.






Her answer to the question is, I don't really believe in ghosts, but if there was evidence to the contrary, I could be convinced. I'm open to changing my mind.


And his response was, No. And there is no information that you could give me to change my mind.


I don't see why anyone would really think that.


At the time, she didn't think much about the difference in their answers. But then, as she got to know him better, other things would come up.


Then I was frustrated about the fact that everything with you is so black and white.


I think not everything is black and white.


Sometimes they're gray. Then I thought back to his answer to this question.


His rigidity was one of the big things that broke them up. Now she tells everyone she knows. If you're seeing someone new, Ask them the ghost question. It could save you a lot of time. The thing about any trap, of course, is there are ways to sidestep it, disarm it. Then the person who laid the trap has to decide what to do. Emmanuel had to make such a decision.


Ironically enough, my current boyfriend had no idea who Beyoncé was, who's the only person who had that response.


What did that tell you?


That he just needed some education. He's old. He's old. He's old. He's not from this country and doesn't listen to music, really. And by the second date, he had read the entire Wikipedia page for me, and he knew Beyoncé's birthday. And that she was married to Jay-Z, and he knew about the elevator fight.


So he listened to your opinion? Yeah.


It ended up being a green flag. Now, I talk to him about Beyoncé all the time, and I don't necessarily think he's not going out to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to understands how important she is and how important she is to me and lets me rant about her. That's all you ever really want, right?


It is. All I think anyone wants is someone you don't feel like you have to set a trap for. Someone who you I can look at them and say, You're everything I need and more. It's written all over your face. Baby, I can feel your halo. Pray it won't fade away. Sorry, I'm going to stop now.


Tobin Glow is an editor on our program. Question two, how old are your kids? There's a particular piece of small talk that happens all the time that for some people is the most normal thing in the world, and for others is a super delicate minefield. This story that you're about to hear is about a couple for whom it is a minefield and how one day a question like this comes up and it goes completely differently from how it's ever gone before for them in a spectacularly wild way. You'll hear what I'm talking about. Chris Benderiv tells the story.


Stacey Silverman is a real estate agent in Southern California, and she's well suited to the because she's excellent at making conversation with strangers about anything. But for the past six and a half years, there's been this classic genre of get to know you banter that's become a lot more complicated for her and her husband, Michael, and that's questions about their children.


Yes, all the time. Talking to people, getting introductions. It's always asking about our kids. How many kids do you have? Blah, blah, blah. How old are they?


The answers to these questions are complicated for Stacey because her older child, Max, died in 2017.


It has been six and a half years because I have a dot tattoo for every six months.


This is Stacey's husband, Michael, Max's dad. He's a CPA, straight-laced guy, for the most part.


Max always wanted us to get tattoos, and we never did.


I feel like- I heard he had some. He had some.


He had a wonderful sleeve and lots of tattoos. I'm covered in tattoos, and my right arm is an entire memorial for Maxi. I've got the kids tattooed up here on my right shoulder.


Did you have tattoos before he got?


Never. But you know, it's tattoo is a very interesting thing. It's less than the least I can do, but it does help me through the pain. And tattooing, really, how I see it from my perspective, is just a socially acceptable cutting.


Max was a funny kid, always loved playing pranks, who, by 15, was struggling with drug addiction, going in and out of treatment. He overdosed when he was 25 in his parents house. After he died for a while, Michael and Stacey were around friends and family who knew what had happened. So nobody asked those, Do you have kids? Questions. But then Stacey traveled to a conference in Albuquerque. She was sitting down for lunch next to a couple, friendly blonde woman and her husband. They began asking Stacey where she was from and what she did. Then finally, those questions.


Do you have kids? How old are they? W The woman was Southern, very sweet, very bubbly. When people are like that with me, I'm pretty open. I felt like being authentic. I told her, One of my children died of an overdose two years ago, and now I have one.


This did not go over well.


This woman and her husband, it really upset them. They just couldn't handle the conversation. They I saw this major pity face with the open mouth and the, Oh, okay.


And there's the conversation with them stall out at that point, and then they go?


Totally stall out. They never talked to me again.


Of course, over time, this happened again and again. Strangers would ask them these sorts of questions, and when they'd answer, it stuck all the air out of the room, which made Michael especially uncomfortable. He never liked sharing this stuff with strangers. He's more of a private person. But together, he and Stacey came up with a strategy for how to handle things.


We're out and about, and the question comes up. We look at each other just a little, imperceptibly so, so nobody could really pick up what's going on. Then Usually, Stacey will answer however she answers, and I support her unreservedly.


A lot of the times, I actually lie. We have two kids, or this is their ages. Talk to you later, and keep it short and sweet. Because Sometimes the white lie is better for that person because they're at a party, they're out having fun, and they definitely don't want to hear about your dead child.


And so on they went, answering some questions about their kids and bobbing and weaving around others for six and a half years. Until this one day, last November, when they got themselves into a situation that was very different from any that they'd been in before and very public. One thing to know about Stacey and Michael is they both spend a lot of their time working at a recovery center for people struggling with addiction, and sometimes they hang out with the other staff and clients there.


I saw that they were going to a show at the Hollywood Improv where Sarah Silverman was performing. I'm like, Oh, my God, I love Sarah Silverman. I want to go. I want to go. I said, When we got there, I go, I want to sit front row center. I want to get heckled. I want to be right under Sarah Silverman. I want her to heckle me if possible, or me. I guess we heckle them. I don't know. I just wanted to be a part of it.


They get seats front row center. But before Sarah Silverman came on stage that night at the Hollywood Improv, there was this opener, a guy named Adam Ray, early '40s, wearing a mariner's cap. He's got this backing band, drums, keyboard, backup singers. He ends his set with a song about how all his friends with kids are miserable and boring now.


A lot of my friends, they have kids. Oh, good for you. Oh, good for you. Who cares? Who cares? But then the song shifts.


Adam Ray says, or sings, that he and his wife are still deciding about having kids. Suddenly, he turns to the crowd, wants to find someone with kids who can make an argument for having them. Adam starts in the front row with a guy a few seats away from Stacey and Michael.


Do you have kids? No. Hell, yeah. So the minute The minute the word kids came up, I went on high alert, and I just had a feeling, Oh, my God. We're sitting in the front row. Is he going to come to us? Do you have kids? Fuck no. Can somebody stick to the script? I'm nervous because I don't know what I'm going to say. I don't know how we're going to deal with it. Remember, we're in a comedy club, and even though Stacey and I subconsciously communicate with one another, we can't do that here in this venue. I look at each other and get an idea of, what are you thinking? What are you thinking What are you thinking? Without talking. I'm there in a desert waiting. And then I saw him coming to me, of course. So he comes to me, Do you have any kids? Do you have Damn right, I do. That's what I'm talking about.


Pretty assertive for the guy who doesn't like talking about this.


I was thinking, What are you fucking... You don't have kids, and you're probably like, Shut the fuck up and get out. There probably was a little attitude, perhaps, you think? I figured that would be it.


But the comedian's not done with him.


How many kids do you have? Can you help change your minds today? Do whatever you say about the blessing the kids come to me. How many kids do you have? ♪ How many kiss do you have? ♪ How many kiss do you have? ♪ You have two.


♪ And he's still not done.


♪ Two kiss. ♪ Which one is your favorite? ♪ Because there's always one that you like. You can go back your mom. The tall one or the short one. Which one is your favorite? Which one do you want more than the other? The one you want. They're definitely, probably not here. So you can So you can say, Which one you've forgotten the birthday of? You wouldn't mind if they took the bus to Irvine tonight. First of all, How old are your kids? So he finally comes down to me with a microphone, How old are your kids? And that's where I was having difficulty calculating because nobody asks me how old they are, typically. So the first thing that went through in my mind was, Well, Sabrina's 26. And by that time, I was fucked because there was no time to figure out, so Max is 31. That didn't happen.


While Michael's thinking, Adam, the comedian, keeps holding the microphone, waiting. This dad is taking too long to answer.


Then finally, Oh my God, you don't know. Wait a second. You're bringing down the energy of the show with your lack of knowledge of your kids.


I felt protective over him in that moment. That's a loaded question, and that's why he can't answer you.


Then the comic turns to Stacy.


Here's a mom, mom, how old are the kids? Mom, mom, do you know? If you have kids, dad doesn't know, dad doesn't know how old his children are.


Then I thought to myself, Oh, now I've got to tell the truth. In a split second, very impulsive moment, I said, I'm sorry to tell you this, but one of our kids is actually dead. I'm sorry to tell you, but one is actually dead.


What the fuck? Oh, my God. R-a-p. R-a-p. R-a-p. R-a-p. What the fuck? Taking a sip of my casete.


On stage, no one quite knows what to do. One of the backup singers puts her hands over her face. The keyboard player just shakes his head like, No.


Then I realized, Uh-oh, I just screwed the shout.


All right. Well, I'm so sorry. Wow. All right. The song has taken a turn. We are thrilled. When we've done the start.


This moment for the comedian seems pretty insurmountable, right? What could he possibly do to save his set after that? I called him up, Adam Ray, and he said he considered changing the subject, but chose not to.


The song has taken a turn. Well, don't have kids. Don't have kids. Okay. So that's what I'm looking for, so we can end this song. All I've had to know, then we are right now.


And finally, it's actually Stacey who saves the day. She motions for Adam, the comedian. He bends down and points his mic at her.


Then she says, Our dead son would think this was hilarious. I said, Our dead son would think this was hilarious.


That's the best compliment I've ever received. It wasn't a lie at all.


Our dead son would have thought this was hilarious. He would have been like, Oh, my God. Of course, my mom stepped in a big pile of shit.


Then Adam gets an idea.


What's the name of your son who's passed off? His name was Max. Let's give You guys are amazing. Thank you so much on that side right there.


The video of Adam said, actually made the rounds on TikTok and Instagram afterwards. Stacey says she read every last comment, all these people rejoicing for and remembering her son.


I've listened to that thing like 100 times, I think, as I keep enjoying it.


I mean, it was incredible. It just was an incredible moment of time.


Lots of people have asked them questions, putting them in this complicated spot. But this time, in front of all those people, that ended with a room full of strangers cheering for Max. This time is their favorite.


Chris Penderief is one of the producers on our show. Coming up, a question about a 400-year-old play, and the personal question underneath that question. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues. It's this American Life, Myra Glass. Today's program, The Question Trap. What we're talking about today is those questions that can seem benevolent, innocent, harmless, innocuous, could not hurt a fly. But underneath, they're really asking something else or quietly making a point about something else. We've arrived at question three of our program. Question three, How's your mom? We spotted this next thing we want to play you in an academic journal. It was originally a paper in Medical Anthropology quarterly written by an anthropologist named Janel Taylor, who adapted it to read here on the radio. This one question that Janel Taylor is writing about. It kept showing up all the time in her personal life. She says as an anthropologist, she knows when lots of people are asking the same question over and over, it means something. She wrote this essay to think through what is underneath that My mother is living with progressive dementia.


Because I'm reading these words on the radio, I can't hear your response, but I'm listening for the question that, as I've learned, always comes. Everyone one, almost without exception, responds with some version of the same question. Does she recognize you? There are variants, of course. Does she still know who you are? But does she still know your name? However it may be phrased, the question is always whether my mother recognizes me, meaning, can she excite the facts of who I am, what my name is, and how I'm related to her? When everyone keeps asking me, Does she recognize you? I find myself thinking, That is the wrong question. I believe the question really is, or should be, Do you, do we recognize her as a person who's still here? Does she recognize you? The weirdness of the question becomes more obvious if you think about what would be required to answer it. Let's say I asked my mother, What's my name? Who am I? How old am I? How do we know each other? Testing her that way, what does it prove? What does it actually accomplish? I read a book by a journalist named Lauren Kessler.


She wrote about how she would correct her own mother when her mother called her by the wrong name. Every time she would visit her mother, she'd take framed photos from the dresser and point to them and quiz her mother. You know who this is, don't you, mom? Of course, she didn't. Kessler writes, So I told her again and again, each visit, who was who, and then quizzed again. Thinking back on this now, I am appalled at my insensitivity. What did I think I was doing? I managed to accomplish only two things. I made myself miserable, and I made my mother irritable. I don't need my mother to tell me my name or how I'm related to her. I already know these things, and I know that she has dementia. So why then would I make a point of asking her these questions that I know she can't possibly answer? It seems rude or just mean. I can't bring myself to do it. I guess you could say that my mother raised me better than that. Does she recognize you? I'm not so convinced that the inability to remember names necessarily means that a person with dementia can't recognize or care about other people.


But very often, it does mean that other people stop recognizing and caring about them. My mother was close to lots of people, but only one friend remains present in her life. Every month or two, Eli Davis drives an hour and a half from her home to Seattle to visit mom, bringing treats and hugs and her always cheerful self. I love her dearly for it, and I wonder, where are the others? Where are the couples with whom my parents socialized, the women with whom mom spent hours and hours on the phone all through my childhood. This shouldn't surprise me as much as it has. Maybe it's not fair to expect friends to step up, even close family drop off. Friendships in America are not usually expected to survive dementia. Friendships are often more like pleasure crafts than life rafts, not built to brave the really rough waters. Does she recognize you? When people ask me whether my mother still recognizes me, they're often expressing concern for me, asking me how I'm bearing up under the burden of suffering that her dementia must place on me. And they're quite ready to hear about my burdens and my suffering.


What they find harder to hear, I think, is that being around my mother is not a nightmare or a horror. It's not like any of that. Here's what it is. In a cafe, as we share a scone, mom and I make what passes for conversation. I've learned to ask only the question that doesn't require any specific information to answer. So, things going okay with you these days? How's my favorite mom doing? You doing all right? I tell her funny little stories about my kids. Sometimes Sometimes we leave through a magazine, looking at the pictures and commenting on them. Sometimes we look out the window and I make general observations that require no specific response. Looks like spring is coming. Look at those leaves coming out on the trees. That guy's hair is really curly. With each exchange, mom smiles at me, beaming affectionately in that familiar, slightly conspiratorial way as if we're both in on the same joke. So our conversations go nowhere. But it doesn't matter what we say, really, or whether we said it before, or whether it's accurate, or interesting, or even comprehensible. The exchange is the point. Mom and I are playing catch with touches, smiles, and gestures, as well as words, lobbying them back and forth to each other in slow, easy, underhand arcs.


The fact that she drops the ball more and more often doesn't stop the game from being enjoyable. It's a way of being together. Does she recognize you? She may not recognize me in a narrowly cognitive sense. But my mom does recognize me as someone who's there with her, someone familiar, perhaps. She doesn't need to have all the details sorted out in order to care for me. The impulse to care, the habit of caring? These are things that run deep in my mother, someone who, for most of her life, was very engaged in caring for other people, her children, her husband, her grandchildren, her friends. Even some of the behavioral quirks that my mom has developed makes sense to me in those terms as expressions of care. Here's an example. People with dementia often engage in repetitive behaviors, and mom is no exception. When I take her out a cafe, I usually get a cup of black coffee for myself and order a cup of hot chocolate for her. Not too hot, and don't forget the whip cream on top. As we drink them, she checks constantly to see whether my cup and hers are even, whether the liquids have been drunk down to the same level.


If not, she'll hurry up and drink more to catch up or I'll stop and wait for me. Or if we share a cookie, she's concerned to make sure that the haves be the same size and that we eat them at the same rate. I think keeping track of whether our drinks and cookies are even comes naturally to my mother, a woman who has always had to carefully divide quite limited resources, first with her own brothers and later among her four children. She's cared about such details all her life, and caring about them was also a way in which she cared for other people. Mom also does still take care of me in some small but important ways. One time, a little more than a year ago, I stopped by the assisted living facility where she was living at the end of a very busy day and an especially hectic week. I had stayed up very late the night before trying to finish grading student papers, then spent the whole day teaching and in meetings. I went with her up to her room, I turned on the TV, and we sat down together on the couch.


I was exhausted. I leaned back and yawned. Mom patted my hand and said to me, You're tired. Just go ahead and sleep. You can just lay down right here. And so I sat there next to my mom, holding her hand, feeling her warmth against me all along one side of my body, and I leaned my head on her shoulder and slept. Does she recognize recognize you? For a while, after we first moved my mother into an assisted living facility, she often said that she wanted to go home. I understood this to mean that she wanted to move back to the house where she had lived for 40 years until my father's death, the house in which I grew up. Usually, I responded with my own mild version of reality orientation, explaining as gently as possible that that house was all empty and cold now, and nobody was there to her company or help her do stuff, so it was probably better to stay here. One time, though, I asked her a question instead. You mean home to the house up in Edmunds? No, on the farm, she answered. You go down. With her raised arm, she traced out the curve of a long ago road.


For the first few years of her life, my mother had lived on a small farm in Southern Idaho before her father moved the family to Seattle during World War II to seek work on the docks. They're inside there, she added. Who? I asked. My mom and my dad. My mother's in her 70s. Her parents are not waiting for her inside an Idaho farmhouse. You could use that evidence to draw a clear line between us. Me here on the side of reality, competence, personhood, recognition. Her over there on the side of delusion, incapacity, not quite fully human. But what she was longing for was her childhood home. She missed her mom and dad She was trying in her own way to hold on to them, just as I was trying against the odds to hold on to her. Our predicament is exactly the same.


Janel Taylor. She's a professor at the University of Toronto, teaching medical Anthropology. Her mom, Charlene Taylor, died in 2019. Do you know, as collecting this essay, another is about to mention it into a book, you can find a link to the original academic article that she wrote at our website. Doug Ford, can I help you? Okay, here's one last example of a question that is another question working behind it. The question goes like this. If Matthew scored an average of 15 points per basketball game and played 24 games in one season, how many points did he score in the season? That's a question from the SHSAT, which is a standardized test given to middle school students in New York City. A high score on the SHSAT will get you into one of the eight top public schools in the city. Wonderful schools. A low score will keep you in the regular public school system where your school may be assigned by lottery. So the question working behind that math question is, are you good enough? Are you good enough to go to the best schools? And maybe from there, to the best colleges. And from there, to all the advantages you get from that education, including a higher income, maybe a better job, all the sorts of stuff.


A big scary chasm opening up in the earth behind that innocent little mouth problem.


In 2017-For five years, Milo Cramer tutored kids who wanted to leap over that chasm and into those eight elite high schools.


At first, it made Milo feel good.


Because I thought I was helping children, and I only gradually came to understand that I was really just a fucked up cog in a larger fucked up system.


This recording is from a one-person show that Milo did this fall about the kids they tutored. I worry a little that it's going to be hard to get across over the radio what's so special about this show. Most of it is songs, songs about the kids that Milo tutored. These very funny and heartbreaking portraits of these middle school and high school kids and Milo's relationship to them. Like, for example, the boy who takes a lot of pleasure denouncing God and the Democrats.


Jason's 16, and he proudly identifies as libertarian. He's a 16-year-old libertarian. I'm afraid of him.


Milo is not a great singer. They would tell you that themselves. Or a skilled musician. But they've written songs in secret since they were the age that these kids are that they're writing about. And It was just something in the intentional roughness and sincerity of what they're doing. It matches the rawness of these kids and their feelings and of Milo's reactions to them when a girl from Queens named Dana, who's better at math than Milo, and probably should be scientist or engineer someday, tells Milo that if she does end up in college, she wants to study theater. Milo, who's broke and struggling and wanting to do theater, sings, I want to tell her not to.


I want to tell her not to. You cannot study theater. You have to study math. You're good at math. You're failing math. You want to study theater? Theater doesn't matter.


There's a pandemic. Lots of the songs in show are about the kids' anxieties, about school and this test and all the pressure they feel from their parents. They're about Milo trying to figure out not just how to teach them, but what they possibly could say to comfort them. Faith, for example, is a terrible reader.


Faith says, I think I'm stupid. I can't read, I guess I'm stupid. I get Bs, I must be stupid. I say, I don't think you're stupid. Faith repeats, I'm sure I'm stupid. If you think I'm smart, please prove it. I tell her in Intelligence is unmeasurable and different in every individual. Faith just looks at me and says, no. I say, yes, she says, no. She says, no, no, no, no. I say, hey, when I was your age, my mom hid all my report cards from me. When I asked her, what my grades were, she always told me, You're right where you should be. You're right where you should be.


Our radio show today is about questions To close out the show, I'm just going to put you one more thing. This is one full song from Milo's show about a question that a student faced. It's an essay question.


Divya has to respond to the question is Shakespeare's Othello Othello Racist in a five-paragraph essay for her white teacher by Monday. And she says, Just tell me the answer, please. I have so much homework this week. I need to get this done as fast as possible. Is Othello racist? Yes or no? I'm like, Have you read the play? She's like, Yes, and I watched the Lawrence Fishburn movie. I'm like, Great. So what do you think? She's like, I don't know. I'm 15. I'm afraid to say the wrong thing. I'm like, Same. This stuff is hard to talk about, but you've got to trust yourself, even though you've also got to constantly question and interrogate yourself. Either way, you've got to try, you've got to try, you've got to try, try, try, try, try, try, try. I'm desperate to do a good job. Divya's Indian-American mom can hear us in the next room. I do not know what to do. Divya looks at the assignment rubric to see how she'll be graded. She needs a clear defensible thesis, followed by three unique body paragraphs. I can tell she's overwhelmed. I say, remember, grades don't matter, Divya.


Learning can't be measured. Just trust how you you feel you did. She says, maybe grades don't matter if you're rich, but in my family, grades are so important. I think I thought at first that Divya didn't have the words to talk about the play in any nuanced way. But now I start to think that her understanding is deeper than my own. And she might never talk to me about Othello, honestly, and shouldn't have to. Finally, I decide she just wants me to provide her with some easy answer to satisfy her teacher and get her through the semester unscathed. So I'm like, Okay. Your teacher is either looking for an essay that's like, Yes, Othello is very racist. The story of the play is there's this super professionally and romantically successful black man all of these white guys are jealous of and cannot handle. That tension is resolved when the white guys trick Othello into murdering his wife, thereby turning him into the brutish stereotype they wanted him to be all along. That the title role was performed in blackface for centuries, underscores this. Moreover, that's a good... That's a transition word, Divya. Moreover, I mean, my next body paragraph will be about, Moreover, Desdemona's whiteness, in contrast, is repeatedly presented as innately good, innocent, and desirable.


That's one essay you could write that would get an A. The other essay you could write that would also get an A goes, No, Othello is not super racist. Othello is a flawed attempt at antiracism in that it's Shakespeare's only play to center a dynamic black protagonist. The play was banned in Apartheid South Africa for depicting an interracial relationship. Morrow However, the play's most prejudiced characters are always presented as either stupid, Rodrigo, or evil, Iago. It would be a mistake to conflate the perspectives of these characters with the meanings of the work as a whole. Either of those essays would get A's, Divya. But what your teacher's reductive, yes or No Prompt does not allow for is an essay that's like what I think I think, which is something like, Othello is a product and reflection of another culture, Elizabeth in England, 400 years old, written at a time when race was just being invented as a system of power. The play later became a cultural export of the British Empire, which colonized black and brown people around the world. The play remains a best seller of the Shakespeare industrial complex. In other words, Divya, Othello and Racism are so indelibly linked that the question, is Othello racist?


Seems to confuse both what racism is and what artworks are. In my opinion, what's really racist, Divya, is that we are required to read Othello for the billionth time that it's on the curriculum at your Brooklyn public high school, even though the play is boring. When we could be reading any number of contemporary black playwrights. Divya responds, Don't hate me, but I liked reading Othello. The story is really crazy, and the language is really pretty.


Milo Kramer, in the one person show School Pictures, recorded at Playwrights Horizons in New York. To hear more songs for the show or to book them to come to your town, go to milochramer. Com. That's Kramer with a C, milochramer. Com.


I got ideas, but I don't know where at all.


And when I speak, you know my voice is small.


And when I'm walking down the street, I never smile at folks I meet, because I know they won't smile at me. Now ask yourself why this should be. But if you want the answers, if you want the answers, don't ask me.


We're The program was produced today by Zoe Chase. The people who put together today's show include Jindai Bonds, Sean Cole, Michael Comette, Bethel Hapti, Khana Jaffee, Walt, Katherine Raimondo, Stone Nelson, Safia Riddle, Lily Sullivan, Francis Swanson, Chris Rosetala, Marisa Robertson-Texer, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updight, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Lou. Our managing editor, Sara Abderhammen. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emmanuel Berry. Original music for The Comedian's Story by Ryan Rummery, who also helped mix the show. Special thanks today to Lauren Kessler. Her book is Finding Life in the land of Alzheimer's. Also, thanks to Galia Walt, Michael Rosenthal, Diana Taylor-William, Mike Taylor, Pat Taylor, David Johnson, Rachel Jackson, Tom O'Keefe, and Jolie Myers. Our website, thisamericanlife. Org. You can stream our archive of over 800 episodes for absolutely free. 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. Jory Maletia. We heard my feelings this morning. We ran into each other. He asked, How am I doing? I started answer. Then he was like, Who cares?


Who cares? Who cares?


I'm Eric Glass. I'm Eric Glass. Back next week, there's more stories of this American life.


If you want the answers, if you want the answers, don't ask me. If you don't ask me.