There is one main reason that I wanted to be on the Off Duty Podcast: in Episode 22, dropped about a week after I started listening, the co-host and the guest talked about recent tragedies. Probie Mike, co-host extraordinaire, mentioned his twin brother for the first time since the pilot episode--and told us that, a few months after they started recording, his brother had died. Their guest, Michelle, talked about her husband's suicide the year before.
Most of us aren't strangers to death. Many of us, I hope, are strangers to deaths too soon, or accidental. My mom's brother died when he was in his mid-thirties from leukemia. The brother of a close friend of mine was killed in an accident last summer. When I was sixteen, a friend of mine committed suicide. Half-way through my third year in college, another close friend of mine attempted suicide. A few months later, so did I.
Sure, most of the time, the Off Duty crew are just messing around. Bob rips on Mike, and their third member, Ryan, adds fuel to the proverbial fire. Poor Mike takes things to heart, and so much of the time on-air is spent teasing him. But this episode--this episode, we saw sheer human pain. We saw the realities of living past someone you love so much that you never thought you'd live your life without them. How does your life keep ticking when their's has stopped? How can you reconstruct yourself when, for so long, another person was in the picture?
One thing you have to understand is that Bob Ruff is kind of a big deal by association. He's friends with Jon Cryer of Two and a Half Men fame, Rabia Chaudry of Undisclosed fortune, and Jim Clemente of Criminal Minds glory. That, if not the hundreds of thousands of people who listen to Truth & Justice, inflates his ego a bit. (I say this with love.) He goes by Chief on the show since: 1) he used to be the fire chief; and 2) well. He's the Chief.
I emailed the crew when Episode 22 was dropped to say that I appreciated Michelle's openness, especially as a suicide survivor. At first, I suggested being a resource for listeners. Then I offered to come onto the show. After all, I was only a few hours drive away from them. It could be fun!
I was thrilled when Mike responded to my email, and so excited that, sometime in the future, I would be on the podcast. This was back in March, and I finally went on the show in July. Thanks, Bob's schedule.
As time neared my time on the show, I felt more comfortable chatting with the crew on outside-of-twitter occasions. The first time I messaged Bob, it was actually about the Kerry Max Cook case. What was insane for me was that, out of all of the listeners, somehow, I had been one voice for them to pluck up. That doesn't make me special--I think it's a total fluke.
Gabe left the planning of the trip up to me, and so it was my responsibility that we had enough time to do everything. When I messaged Bob the morning of our show, I was still at home. I figured--somehow--that we'd get there probably around noon or one, and maybe could get lunch with Bob. When he declined (something about "detoxing"), I gave us a little more time to get packed and take our dog to Gabe's mother's.
The plan was to start recording at three, so, tra la la, we hit the road. Gabe and I were listening to Real Crime Profiles, as we had just finished watching The People vs. OJ Simpson and wanted to hear Jim Clemente's and Laura Richards' thoughts. "Bob actually knows this guy," I said to Gabe at some point. "He's helped with Adnan's case."
Traffic wasn't terrible, and at some point, Gabe drifted in and out of sleep. At some point, my phone buzzed: it was Mike checking in.
"Tell him we just passed Michigan City," I said. I glanced at the clock--2pm. We'd be there in half an hour, with time to spare.
Then a few minutes later, Bob messaged me. I'm sure I said something along the lines of, "Dang, these guys are thirsty," before it hit me.
Michigan was an hour ahead of Chicago.
Now, much of Off Duty's humor is predicated on Bob yelling at the people around him. I'd been ready to charge into the studio, defend poor Mike, and battle him head-to-head.
And now, I was half an hour late to his show.
When we pulled up to Bob's house, I didn't see the studio. It's a little shed right next to the house, accessible from the front. Gabe pointed it out and, in true celebrity style, I decided to walk in with my face covered by my hands.
One: that studio is a lot bigger on the inside (geddit) than it looks, both from the outside and on Periscope.
Two: They're all much bigger than I thought. Seriously. Mike has a solid foot over me. Bob and Ryan are seriously presences.
Three: Bob's beard was really long. (He has since trimmed it.)
Four: Ryan's shirt was, indeed, neon yellowish-green.
When Bob and Mike both mentioned that they'd read some of my stuff, I was deeply flattered and honored. I'm only newly publishing my work, and I'm trying to build up a following of people who are interested in it. To hear that they'd even preliminarily glanced at something was huge for me. Ironically, of course, we didn't touch on my writing for the rest of the three-hour-long episode, but we did at least cover my favorite topic of all, gender.
(Let's ignore that I botched both Judith Butler and didn't even mention the most basic aspect of gender presentation, which is dress.)
I was amused that Bob was unsure of the line; he didn't want to poke fun at something that was so out of his realm. Race? Sure. Religion? Sure. But gender? How do you do that in a tasteful way?
Hearing Bob fumble through my (albeit awfully explained) gender label was a lot like hearing my mom try to understand it. I didn't find it offensive. (Mike definitely was more bothered than I was.) Much of it was in the guise of "I'm being an ignorant asshole for the sake of the show!", but what I felt most of all was a man who didn't want to believe in his ingrained prejudices, and actively worked against them. I appreciated that.
A lot more of the show was dicking around than I wanted it to be--there was a list of things I wanted to talk about, and had promptly forgotten them all--but, throughout, I tried to be more sassy and witty than I actually am. Listening back to the recording, I think I did a mixed job. Believe you me, I'm not a funny person.
During the first break, we went into Bob's house, where I got a real glimpse of who Bob was: a literal every-day person. In my imagination, I dreamt up this huge house with too much space for even four children; the reality was a modest and lovely single-family home, top floor for bedrooms, kitchen and living room separated only by a dining table, and a deck overlooking a soccer field. Becky, Bob's beautiful wife who works part-time (soon full!) as a fitness coach, was there, but I felt too awkward to give her a hug. (I felt like I'd failed too many of her support groups. I know what works for me to work out (Netflix at the gym), and I was trying and failing miserably to do other things.) In zoomed Bob's youngest son, Parker, and the giant German Shepards crashed through the deck door. On the counter lay our imminent reward for our immense labor: chicken waiting to be grilled.
On the second half of the podcast, I tried, very, very hard, to defend Mike against Bob. It's one thing to hear that he sounds uncomfortable during "let's make fun of Mike" time, but sitting next to him was a more tangible experience. Mike doesn't like "let's make fun of Mike" time. Mike genuinely, honestly, feels uncomfortable talking both about stories where he has shined, and stories where he hasn't. Maybe it was the proximity in age, but Mike already felt like a friend to me, so I did my best to intervene and defend him. I failed. Sorry, Mike!
There were three hundred things I wanted to talk about on the show. What it's like to deal with mental illness; growing up in the equivalent of a church; having a brother with a severe disability; building yourself after someone you care about so deeply dies; that Gabe first messaged me with the story of his eating disorder; the meaning of vulnerability and openness; forgiveness, especially of yourself. I know it's a comedy podcast, but my favorite parts have always been when the crew gets real.
The most terse moment for me came at the very end, when Ryan asked for a moment of silence for the murders of the police officers in Dallas and those of officials outside of the courthouse in their own county. Bob interjected to say an opinion, and I cut him off by saying, "I hope you're going to say Black lives matter, because they do."
The following conversation was uncomfortable for me, at the very least. These were three men who had friends and family who put on a uniform every day because they believe in public safety. The cops in Dallas were shielding the protesters with their bodies, they told me. Every time there's a traffic stop, the cop is literally afraid for their lives--because people get shot just going up for a ticket. For every murder by a cop you hear, there's fifty more of a cop doing the right thing that you don't. It's the media that screws up all of the portrayal.
This is where quick-thinking failed me, because my response should have been: but we care more about the death of cops than we do of Black people or other people of color in this country. Why should we commend cops for doing their jobs? Why are we living in perpetual fear of one-another?
I told them right off the bat that I don't have their point of view; meaning, I don't have cops in my close friends and families. I don't know the fear of them not coming home one night because of something at work. But I do know that friends of mine fear they won't see their fathers, or brothers, or sisters, or mothers, because of the color of their skin.
I understand that the whole system has flaws. Ryan said that a cop expressing any bigoted views wouldn't be let into the Academy--which I believe, except not everyone expresses them verbally, or at least, not publicly. He also explained, as a dispatcher, that he can't tell the race of the person on the line when he either sends or doesn't send for help. (But people make assumptions.) But his point that rang very true, for me, was that what mattered more than race in his line of work was class. I didn't mention that race and class are highly connected, but I could understand that here, in a predominantly white area, race wasn't as highlighted the way it might be in another city.
It used to take a lot to get famous, I think. TV shows and movies were the key. It's easier to get famous now with the internet--I mean, hell. Truth & Justice is literally one of the top podcasts on iTunes. And here I was, sitting on Bob Ruff's deck, eating delicious grilled chicken and baked asparagus. (That asparagus was phenomenal.) He was literally a totally normal guy. He helped his eldest (step)son, Jackson, in math; he made plates up for Parker and Quint so that they could go to bed early. (They didn't.)
As I left, Bob said, "We should definitely have you back up sometime." That was all for which I could have hoped.