This American Life

Weekly radio program from Chicago Public Radio. Heard on public radio stations nationwide as well as satellite radio. Check local listings.

When I first moved to Missouri for graduate school, I spent nearly a month alone without television, Internet access or even a DVD drive on my computer. Giving up one would have been difficult but manageable; giving up all three was agony.

Deprived of a flickering screen to distract me from my loneliness and anxiety, I discovered the joys of public radio. Not all of the programming was to my taste. I only tolerated Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and absolutely loathed A Prairie Home Companion, but I fell rapturously in love with This American Life. Every Saturday afternoon, I curled up next to the radio for the hour-long program. Host Ira Glass would describe the abstract theme for the week and then introduce a few stories loosely related to that over-arching idea. Some stories were heavily reported, some were personal narratives, others were pure fiction, but nearly all had a distinct, individual voice and something meaningful to impart. The writers impressed me with their skill but, more than that, with their wit and insight and honesty. For that month, This American Life was a major highlight of my week.

The story I remember most clearly was given the full hour. Reporter Jack Hitt followed a group of prison inmates as they studied, rehearsed and performed Act V of Hamlet, the final act, when everything goes to hell. I knew the play very well, so I was intrigued by the premise of Hitt’s story and completely unprepared for how the prisoners’ perspectives on the play challenged my own assumptions about it. The criminals, many of them violent offenders, murderers, drew on their own experiences to make sense of their characters. I realized that my understanding of Hamlet’s essential dilemma, whether to kill another human being, was only abstract; these men understand the reality of such a crime — and its consequences — all too well. Though amateurs, they brought to the centuries-old play an emotional depth, a palpable mix of regret and anger and acceptance, that I had never experienced.

After the program was over, I turned off the radio and sat in silence, contemplating what I had heard. This American Life made me laugh. It piqued my interest in subjects to which I’d never given much thought. It inspired me. I wanted that in my life, and I promised myself I would keep listening.

But once Sean joined me, bringing with him all the technology I missed, I broke my promise. Saturday afternoons were inconvenient, and I would forget to turn the radio on. The habit died, and I didn’t listen to This American Life for years.

Recently, though, I discovered the This American Life Web site, and all of my admiration and affection for the program came rushing back. I was terrible at catching the show on its schedule — my beloved TiVo has broken my ability to keep appointments with electronic devices — but the Web site allows me to listen on my schedule. To my delight, every single program ever broadcast is available as a free streaming MP3.

I’ve been holding my own private This American Life festivals. I’ve listened to the an amateur reporter embedded with Minutemen on the U.S.-Mexico border, an Iraqi-American recounting his tale of star-crossed love as a POW during the first Persian Gulf war, and Mira Nair reading one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s amazing short stories. And, course, I’ve listened to episode 218, originally broadcast August 9, 2002: “Act Five” by Jack Hitt. It was just as startling and thought-provoking and beautiful as I remembered.