07 April 2014

here's to listening

Last week I assigned my students a particular type of expository essay; it was meant to be a reflection on some "mundane" aspect of their lives. I wanted them to explore it a bit, and see how significant it actually is. I especially wanted to get them thinking about how everyday objects and actions are connected to deeper realities (you know how G.K. Chesterton was always turning bits of chalk or cracks in the ceiling into miniature philosophical treatises? something along those lines).

Anyway, I typically send them essay examples written by previous students. However, since this was the first year I've tried this assignment, I had to write an example myself. Here it is. :)


this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart with me (in my heart)

-e.e. cummings

Two individuals may eventually have such similar desires and views, even similar memories, that they seem completely unified across astronomical distances. Though this e.e. cummings poem describes the bond of romance, that bond can also spring up in fortunate families. I have had such fortune. There are six of us children, raised by two (remarkably forbearing) parents. Now our thoughts often diverge, especially as most of us have launched into adulthood. Yet the views we still share run deep, and our interlocking memories run deepest. Funnily enough, many of them come from the radio—the magical pipeline of drama, music, and news still weaving itself through our everyday.

I call it funny because the radio doesn't turn heads anymore. It does not strike us as particularly significant, as we have grown used to it in the background and the internet has superseded it in many ways. Among the shiny furnishings of modern life, who would choose the radio over laptops or phones? But consider the revolution incited by radio waves. Suddenly we had orchestras and baseball games in a box. People did not have to play the piano themselves in order to hear Rachmaninov; they could enjoy all sorts of entertainment that formerly required tickets and travel. They did not have to wait for the next day's paper to hear about political goings-on, either; with speech floating on air, they could immediately hear what was going on at the other side of the country, even the world. Think of FDR's “fireside chats” during World War II, how a worried wartime nation valued that direct communication.

What about today? What did the radio offer me and my siblings as children, and why do I still love it? Back in the nineties, the internet was nothing, and though we had television, there was something special about the radio: the imagination it demanded. Like television, it provided an immediate connection to the world at large, but it did not spoon-feed us the images. We had to think.
For example, I remember hurriedly finishing our post-dinner chores so that we could listen to Adventures in Odyssey, a weeknight radio drama for children. The memorable characters with their hilarious mistakes and heartwarming apologies, not to mention their crazy voyages in the science-fiction “Imagination Station,” made for endless entertainment. Then on Saturday mornings we turned up the radio again for Ranger Bill: forest rangers facing off against everything from rattlesnakes to radioactive deer. We had fertile imaginations ourselves, and these long-running storylines only stoked our creativity. Ours is the type of family that speaks in references and quotations—unless you have shared our history you probably won't understand half of our conversation—and oh, how those tales have stocked our supply.

Of course we had music. This was my mother's preferred background noise: not the admittedly silly radio dramas, but music. (Her actual preferred background noise was silence. Since her six hooligans mysteriously refused to comply, quality music sufficed, even when it involved electric guitars.) This too shaped us. Not only did we speak in story references, we also started to sing constantly. I was never much for memorizing lyrics, but my brothers were whizzes at it, and if I couldn't memorize I could hum. We harmonized as we built Lego castles and mowed the lawn and drove to church—when we are together, we still do.

The music I want to hear over my own radio now that I am a mom is almost 100 percent classical, for a variety of reasons. In the first place, I have one small child. After growing up with a passel of siblings, something has to fill the quiet. In the second place, well, I have one small child! She can cause enough chaos on her own (even if she doesn't generate much noise as she does it). The order and beauty of classical music grounds me when I am contemplating a floor covered with baby toys. In addition, as my baby grows up, I would like her to absorb that order and beauty on a regular basis. So much creativity, such fascinating history, awaits in the concertos and symphonies aired on the radio. I want her mind to be wrapped in it too. So we tune in to Tchaikovsky almost every day.

In the car I crank pop hits. Nothing like a little Top 40 to balance the heavy-hitting orchestral suites.
NPR is actually our usual fare on road, and often in the house too. I grew up with NPR. I remember my dad listening to Car Talk as he did projects around the house. He was listening to All Things Considered when he picked me up from ballet class in the afternoon. On weekends he did impressions of Garrison Keillor, the host of Prairie Home Companion, or we danced along to Celtic music, or we scratched our head over opera on weekend afternoons. When we heard programs together, we had something to talk about; even if we disagreed with what the program said it fueled thought and conversation.

So this last bit, the news and talk radio, I listen to partially for sentiment's sake. Apart from that, I listen because it exercises my noggin. Those radio personalities introduce me to new things every day. Though they deal in facts, not the fiction of the dramas we soaked up years ago, facts can inspire my imagination too. Especially since I cannot see the people, places, or events under discussion, I have to employ my brain to fill in the images. In that way I become a participant in the program, which I prefer to sitting passively in front of a television screen. As this noggin of mine is frequently occupied with grocery lists and diapers, I relish the chance to expand its scope. I have always believed in the importance of education. Politics, history, philosophy—four years after graduating from college, the radio lets me keep learning, even in the middle of everyday life.

In fact, that's one of the best things about the radio: it happens “in the middle” of things. I can have music in the background without taking time to play it myself. I can turn a dish-washing session into a history lecture with the push of a button. Because these things happen so easily, not only for me but for the other members of my family, we still have that fuel for discussion when we see one another. Even when we live hours apart, we can hear the same programs. The radio that drew us together after dinner almost twenty years ago continues to foster our connection.

What a person hears certainly shapes what he thinks. It shapes what he remembers, too. As that one person carries his memories and thoughts forward, consider how he might also carry the memories and thoughts of others, simply because they have heard the same things. Surprisingly often, in our family we heard those “same things” on the radio. Mundane as it is, I still see it as a bit of a magic-worker, depositing the larger world in our kitchens and living rooms and cars. Here's to listening.

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