LULU MILLER, HOST:
From NPR News, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Lulu Miller.
ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:
And I am Alix Spiegel. And today, we're talking about categories.
MILLER: And we just heard a story about how hard life becomes when there is no category for you. And so now we want to ask what's with that? Like, why are categories so important to us? You know, when you dive deep into your own category and surround yourself with people who are like you in some crucial way, what are you actually getting from that?
MILLER: That's the question. And to help us answer it, Alix, I am now pleased to introduce you to a man who happens to have the best name ever.
IGNATIUS: I go by Iggy - Iggy Ignatius.
MILLER: That sounds like a rock star.
IGNATIUS: Yes. Iggy and Julio Iglesias.
MILLER: So Iggy Ignatius is an older Indian gentleman born and raised in India.
IGNATIUS: I was born and brought up in Madras, came here for my MBA at the University of Illinois.
MILLER: He was 25.
IGNATIUS: When I left, I swore to myself that I'll go get my degree, and I'll come back to my country.
MILLER: Cut forward 26 years.
MILLER: Iggy's still here.
IGNATIUS: Living in Lansing, MI.
MILLER: Not so much like India.
SPIEGEL: Not so much.
IGNATIUS: Tons of snow.
MILLER: And he wants to go back to India more than ever. It's all he wants, in a way - what his whole life has been driving toward.
IGNATIUS: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
MILLER: But with retirement approaching, these seven pesky faces kept coming up in his mind.
IGNATIUS: My daughters, my son, my grandchildren.
MILLER: He didn't want to be far from them.
IGNATIUS: Right. And then the health care.
MILLER: He worried about the infrastructure.
IGNATIUS: There is no guarantee you could reach the hospital on time.
MILLER: And also.
IGNATIUS: You know, most of Indians get cremated when they die. And one of our cultural things is that usually the oldest son has to light the funeral pyre because they believe the soul goes to heaven only if it is lighted by the son. So those things...
MILLER: Kids, health care, a safe entry into the next life for your soul...
IGNATIUS: Are all like chains that does not allow you to go back to India.
MILLER: And he says this is not a thing that's just going on with him. He thinks that this - this is, like - this is the dilemma. This is the dilemma for immigrants.
MILLER: So anyway, one day in the cold, slushy environment of Lansing, it hits him. Oh my gosh, what if I just created...
IGNATIUS: An Indian retirement community in Florida.
SPIEGEL: Oh, that is kind of brilliant.
MILLER: Yep. He would build it to look like an Indian village, low buildings...
IGNATIUS: Big courtyard.
MILLER: There'd be palm trees...
>>MILLER. He'd serve Indian food.
IGNATIUS: Curry, rice, homemade yogurt.
MILLER: There'd be Indian music.
IGNATIUS: Tabla, harmonium.
MILLER: A prayer room.
IGNATIUS: A small temple.
MILLER: Indian table cloths.
IGNATIUS: Bollywood movies.
MILLER: And of course, the most important detail.
IGNATIUS: Other Indians.
MILLER: Everyone there would be Indian.
MILLER: His problem would be solved.
MILLER: So he comes up with a name for this place he dreams of building.
IGNATIUS: Shantiniketan. Shanti means peace, and niketan means house. So it's peace house.
MILLER: And he goes around the country, meeting with other Indians, to see if anyone would be interested.
IGNATIUS: And in every town I went, as I was halfway through my presentation, one of them would raise their hand and say, but you stole our idea.
MILLER: Because everyone was like, wait, we were thinking of doing this.
IGNATIUS: Well, nobody had done it.
MILLER: The point is, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
IGNATIUS: People were rushing to me. What do I need to do to sign up?
MILLER: He immediately finds 10 investors dying to fund this all-Indian retirement community. And in August of 2008, they all meet down in Florida, right near the site where he plans to build.
IGNATIUS: I still remember the date - August 2, 2008. Everybody handed me down their check.
MILLER: And then...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This is CNN breaking news.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Lehman Brothers has filed for bankruptcy.
MILLER: You may recall, September, 2008, the stock market crashes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Breaking news here. Stocks all around the world are tanking because of the crisis on Wall Street.
MILLER: And we enter into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It is the largest single-day point drop ever.
MILLER: And so Iggy, after regrouping with his wife, just starts trying to hawk his condos.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IGNATIUS: Hi, welcome to Shantiniketan. I'm Iggy Ignatius, the CEO of Shantiniketan.
MILLER: Here he is in a YouTube tour he made, trying to sound upbeat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IGNATIUS: So let us go out now, and we'll take a tour of the place.
MILLER: While all around him, literally across the street, houses are being foreclosed and residents are deserting the area.
IGNATIUS: My biggest challenge was, across the street, you could buy a four-bedroom, single-family home for $100,000, and I was selling here, for $130,000, a two-bedroom condo, half the size of what you could get across the street for $100,000.
MILLER: But it turned out the fact that Florida was in the worst housing crisis in the history of the state was not a problem at all. Instantly, he sold out an entire wing of condos.
IGNATIUS: I had enough money to build two wings, sold the two wings, had enough money for two more wings and a clubhouse. We were building this like a domino effect.
MILLER: And he was able to sell out all 54 units.
IGNATIUS: And it was still the worst market in the real estate going on in Florida.
MILLER: That's amazing.
IGNATIUS: Yeah. That was the biggest miracle. That was the biggest miracle.
MILLER: Which starts to raise the question, what had Iggy tapped into?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IGNATIUS: It is a gated community where you will be living with people of your own cultural background.
MILLER: Like, why on earth were these selling out during the time of our worst - like, the worst real estate market ever?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IGNATIUS: And there will be gates here and here. And the whole property will be fenced.
MILLER: Is it this desire to be among your own, to be in your own category?
So I went down to Florida.
Big palm trees in the entrance, a waterfall.
To ask Iggy and the people who had actually bought homes in ShantiNiketan. Had they purchased that primal desire to stick with your own?
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
IGNATIUS: Oh my goodness.
MILLER: Do you guys still have time?
And before I get to what they said, I just have to mention here how successfully Iggy had done it. He had created India. There was Hindu prayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF HINDU PRAYER SERVICE)
UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
MILLER: There was yoga.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bend your elbows.
MILLER: Customs I didn't realize I was supposed to observe.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Inaudible).
MILLER: Oh, should I take off my shoes?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.
MILLER: Sorry about that. It was surreal - a real microcosm. So different from the world just outside its gates that as I walked around the property, it suddenly made me think about another perfectly insulated microcosm - the Augusta National Golf Club. So Alix, you know about this place, right?
SPIEGEL: It's like the place where they only let in white people?
MILLER: Right. It's a golf club down in Georgia, which, in 1990, did let in their first black members, and they let in their first woman in 2012.
SPIEGEL: All right.
MILLER: But they, over the years, have always been surrounded by controversy because they only wanted to admit people of one category.
MILLER: And so if anyone doesn't want me to record, just...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They won't talk.
MILLER: ...You can just swat me away.
And so once I returned from my stroll, I approached a big group of people sitting around at a table after lunch and asked them...
What if you flipped this? You know, like, what if this was one of these country clubs in Georgia that only lets in white men?
Is there something a little bit racist about what is happening here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No. Not at all. Your comparison to Georgia country club is not fair.
MILLER: Everybody pointed out that they are not excluding anyone.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We would let anybody in.
MILLER: Which is obviously a crucial difference. But no one was shy about admitting that part of what they were paying for was being around people like them.
VIJAYA GARMELLA: My God, Lulu, the happiness it gives me.
GARMELLA: Life goes better here.
MILLER: This one woman, Vijaya Garmella (ph), said just think about how exhausting it can be to live life as an outsider to a culture.
GARMELLA: It's very hard.
IGNATIUS: For example, you know, I would dread to go through a drive-through to even buy a cup of coffee...
MILLER: That's Iggy again.
IGNATIUS: ...Because when I ask her for a coffee, she just wouldn't understand what I want. What do you want?
MILLER: And language wasn't the only challenge that people brought up.
GARMELLA: There is this hesitancy here.
MILLER: The emotional chill that particularly northeastern Americans can have...
GARMELLA: You cannot just knock at their door.
MILLER: ...Came up a lot.
GARMELLA: They look at you - oh, why didn't you phone me? Why didn't you do this thing?
MILLER: And having grown up in the land of pursed lips, I, at least say, this is a totally fair assessment of our people.
No, it's true. I'm always afraid of bothering...
GARMELLA: See? They think - it's not bothering. See, that's where it is. Why do you even say that word?
MILLER: And so the return to a community of people just like you - it's a relief.
IGNATIUS: Here I can knock at her door and say I'm here and she'll welcome me.
GARMELLA: It's so comforting.
MILLER: So is there a dark side to this homogenous heaven?
GARMELLA: Very, very nice people out here. Very, very nice people.
MILLER: Iggy admits that...
IGNATIUS: Unfortunately, yes.
MILLER: ...There is - a little.
IGNATIUS: I don't want my children or grandchildren to live in a community like this.
MILLER: He thinks it's too insular.
IGNATIUS: But retirement communities are places where people go waiting to die.
MILLER: And according to Iggy, at that time, it is beyond your control. Whether you be a majority or minority, you will experience a deep, primal desire to withdraw.
IGNATIUS: Look at the salmon. The salmon always swims upstream to the place of its birth to spawn and then die there. And I think that is an animal instinct, which we as human beings seem to have that aspect of us in it.
MILLER: So is that true? Is it just animal nature to get a little racist as death approaches?
JEFF GREENBERG: Yes.
MILLER: This is a scientist named Jeff Greenberg.
GREENBERG: I am a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.
MILLER: And for the last 30 years, he's been studying how we behave when death is on the mind.
GREENBERG: That realization that, someday, we're not going to exist.
MILLER: And Iggy is absolutely right. If you raise the specter of death in a person's mind, which you can do experimentally, by the way, by simply asking a question like...
GREENBERG: ...What do you think happens to you as you physically die and once you're dead?
MILLER: People like people in their own group way better than they do when they're not thinking about death.
GREENBERG: So we had them rate them on, you know, traits like, you know, honesty, kindness, intelligence.
MILLER: Christians like Christians better. Italians like Italians better. And Germans, who most of the time are actually pretty lukewarm on other Germans...
GREENBERG: I think it's still - it's lingering, you know, guilt.
MILLER: ...If you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans.
GREENBERG: So if you interview Germans near funeral home, they're much more nationalistic.
MILLER: But it's not just that we like our own more. Its reverse imprint is also true. We like people outside of our group much, much less.
GREENBERG: People become more negative toward other cultures.
MILLER: So why? Why might we do this?
GREENBERG: Well, because death haunts us as it does. We have to do something about it.
MILLER: Greenberg thinks it's this strange way that we try to fend off death. His thinking goes that people who are not like you, who do not share your language or your values or your beliefs, well, in some very primal way, it's like they can't see you.
IGNATIUS: I will dread to go through a drive-through to even buy a cup of coffee.
MILLER: Which is unpleasant at any stage of your life, but particularly, Jeff says, at the end, when the threat of disappearing is becoming so visceral.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My artery was 97 percent blocked when we found out. I practically died.
MILLER: Person after person at Shantiniketan pulled me aside to tell me about their ailments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They took the hip bone and they fuse it in the back and they put the titanium rods and screws.
GREENBERG: And so to manage the terror that we're just these transient creatures...
MILLER: ...We shoo those people who make us disappear away.
MILLER: That is, when you dive deep into your own category, what you're actually getting is the illusion...
GREENBERG: ...That we're significant and we're enduringly significant.
MILLER: Have you had deaths?
IGNATIUS: Yes. We had a couple of people pass away.
MILLER: One of whom was his wife.
IGNATIUS: She had suffered for a year with leukemia, and when she passed away she had wished that she would be cremated.
MILLER: And Iggy worked out a deal with the local crematorium so that his son was able to come in and light the cremation fire.
IGNATIUS: Yes. (Singing in Hindi) That's very important you know? The soul rests in peace if that is done. (Singing in Hindi).
MILLER: Iggy sang this song at her funeral.
IGNATIUS: (Singing in Hindi) Which literally - (speaking Hindi) literally says never say goodbye.
MILLER: All right. So before we say goodbye for real, do you want to do a little interactive radio?
SPIEGEL: I think it's time for some interactive radio.
MILLER: OK. You - everybody out there, and you, Alix, are going to hear a story. And the way you respond to that story is going to tell you what category you fall into. But it's not a category of race or religion or gender. No - it's a different kind of category.
MILLER: The story is by Simon Rich and it's called "The Children Of The Dirt."
SIMON RICH: According to Aristophanes, there were originally three sexes - the children of the moon who were half-male and half-female, the children of the sun who were fully male, and the children of the earth, who were fully female. Everyone had four legs, four arms and two heads, and spent their days in blissful contentment. Zeus became jealous of the humans' joy so he decided to split them all in two. Aristophanes called this punishment the origin of love because ever since, the children of the earth, moon and sun have been searching the globe in a desperate bid to find their other halves. Aristophanes' story though is incomplete because there was also a fourth sex - the children of the dirt. Unlike the other three sexes, the children of the dirt consisted of just one half. Some were male and some were female and each had just two arms, two legs and one head. The children of the dirt found the children of the earth, moon and sun to be completely insufferable. Whenever they saw a two-headed creature walking by, talking to itself in baby-talk voices, it made them want to vomit. They hated going to parties and when there was no way to get out of one, they sat in the corner, too bitter and depressed to talk to anybody. The children of the dirt were so miserable that they invented wine and art to dull their pain. It helped a little, but not really. When Zeus went on his rampage he decided to leave the children of the dirt alone. They're already [bleep], he explained.
Happy gay couples descend from the children of the sun. Happy lesbian couples descend from the children of the earth. And happy straight couples descend from the children of the moon. But the vast majority of humans are descendants of the children of the dirt. And no matter how long they search the earth, they'll never find what they're looking for because there's nobody for them, not anybody in the world.
MILLER: Interactive radio test - which category do you fall into? Test subject number one, Alix Spiegel.
MILLER: Does that do anything for you?
MILLER: That's like you, being nice.
SPIEGEL: Yeah. It does nothing for me.
MILLER: So that reaction...
SPIEGEL: Just crickets.
MILLER: ...Is what gave me the idea that this story may be some kind of categories test because when I first read this story I was in a little bit of a darker moment of my life, and I literally threw the book down with joy. So when Alix got crickets, I picked the book back up to figure out what was so great about it, and I discovered that I think the source of its power comes from two words - vast majority.
RICH: The vast majority of humans are descendants of the children of the dirt.
MILLER: With those two words, Simon Rich does a very kind thing. If you are someone who is alone and thinks yourself a little off in your aloneness, you are suddenly scooped into a box with a whole pile of other lonely people, and you feel better. And that is the strange power of categories because nothing about you is actually changing, but by simply getting a line drawn around you, you get some real relief.
SPIEGEL: Yeah, it does nothing for me.
MILLER: Unless of course, you aren't a member of this particular category.
MILLER: But for the people in the group?
SEAN COLE: (Laughter).
MILLER: This is Sean Cole, radio producer, who happened to be stopping by during a rougher patch in his love life, and I forced him to read the story.
The effect is real.
COLE: Oh, God. I think I'm a child of the dirt. And I like how they invent art and wine to dull their pain.
MILLER: High-five. Welcome to the club.
So if you laughed, if this story lifted your spirits in some tiny way, you are probably lonely. But here's the kind of frustrating thing - the founder of our most wonderful club, Simon Rich...
RICH: I mean, you know I'm sort of shocked that you asked me to read that one. I'm usually not that bleak.
MILLER: The story doesn't work for him anymore.
RICH: I actually now am in a really happy relationship.
MILLER: He had me look at the dedication page in his book.
(Reading) For Kathleen.
MILLER: How did you meet Kathleen?
RICH: We met - actually, we met at a gay and lesbian fiction class. I assumed that she was a lesbian. I don't know if you've ever seen a picture of me, but she thought that I was a trans-gendered female-to-male person.
MILLER: I guess you're sprightly?
RICH: Yeah. I get a lot of thank you ma'am's when I shop. We went on a date, and...
MILLER: Fast-forward over half a decade.
RICH: We're going strong. I just sort of feel like a guy who won the lottery.
MILLER: Its charms are lost on him.
RICH: It feels like it was written by a different person.
MILLER: (Sighing). Well, for the rest of us, who find its last two lines like a kind of worry stone...
RICH: Because there's nobody for them, not anybody in the world.
MILLER: ...Totally inert, but deeply soothing. Enjoy.
RICH: Because there's nobody for them, not anybody in the world. Because there's nobody for them, not anybody in the world. Because there's nobody for them, not anybody in the world...
COLE: I'm Sean Cole and I'm a child of the dirt.
JENNIFER CANTON: I'm Jennifer Canton (ph) and I am a child of the dirt.
MEGAN ECKMAN: I am Megan Eckman (ph).
MILLER: I'm Lulu Miller.
AUSTIN SMITH: I am Austin Smith (ph).
BEN PAYJACK: I am Ben Payjack (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And I am a child of the dirt.
MILLER: Children of the dirt, we'll be back next week.
SPIEGEL: Lulu, it's INVISIBILIA.
MILLER: OK. Dance party?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAVIN' FLAG")
K'NAAN: (Singing) When I get older I will be stronger, they'll call me freedom...
SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is me, Alix Spiegel...
MILLER: And me, Lulu Miller.
SPIEGEL: Our editor is Anne Gudenkauf, with help from Eric Nuzum, Matt Martinez, Portia Robertson Migas and Madhulika Sikka. Production help by Brent Bachman and Brenden Baker.
MILLER: Special thanks to Simon Rich. His story collection, "The Last Girlfriend On Earth," is truly hilarious, whether you are lonely or not. And now for our moment of nonsense.
SPIEGEL: I think the top.
MILLER: All right. Fine, I'll do it at the top.
MILLER: (Singing) You fished me, you brought me here. I am the one that you chose. OK. Oh - we're recording?
MILLER: OK. I just want to use that, of me being a [bleep].
SPIEGEL: Join us next time for more INVISIBILIA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.