Friday, April 11, 2003

Game Theory

This morning there was absolutely nothing interesting happening on the ten radio stations I monitor during my commute in to work. Let the record show that I haven’t considered Cities 97 playing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” or Bob Yates reading celebrity birthdays as “interesting” for almost a decade. Sure, there was a period in my life when that combination was morning magic. But back then I also thought Michael Moore was an important social critic and Mark Dayton was a principled advocate of the common man. And I was suffering from a massive head injury (or at least that's my cover story). Thankfully, I’ve recovered nicely since then.

So, this morning, in a final attempt to distract myself from having to prematurely think about what faced me in the rapidly onrushing start of the work day, I reluctantly turned to my eleventh option. Minnesota Public Radio. Which, if nothing else, allows me to hear the voice of Cathy Wurzer.

Despite Ms. Wurzer’s obvious elite media biases and her occasional failings as a broadcaster, I’m still crazy about her. Of course I’m an admirer of her looks, a tantalizingly inaccessible ice queen beauty. But I also like her attitude which is professional and polite, yet with a subtext of bitchy intolerance. And she conveys it with a voice that’s warm and throaty yet slightly nasal, which always makes her sound as if she’s just getting over a head cold. She is, in a word, perfect. (Inaccessible ice queen beauty, sublimated bitchy intolerance, and a head cold - a uniquely Minnesota concept of eroticism).

However, when I tuned in this morning, Cathy wasn’t on. It was some woman from NPR, reporting from Iraq. And within two minutes of listening I was promptly cast into the depths of anxiety and despair. She was in Baghdad, commenting on various “serious setbacks” to US efforts in securing the peace, and of the “growing crisis” represented by the looting of public buildings, and of the “profoundly disturbing” certainty of private homes being ransacked in the future as Baghdad spirals down into a permanent state of lawlessness.

Two minutes of listing to NPR and I started sweating, my head started hurting, my heart started thumping and my guts started rumbling (and yes, I do blame NPR for this, and not that speedball I like to sprinkle over my Cheerios on Friday mornings).

Since I like to reserve feelings of panic and hopelessness for my work hours alone, my typical reaction to listening to an NPR report such as this is a quick channel change. After going through a short ordeal of tax-subsidized gloom and doomism, Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” playing on KS95 suddenly seems like a refreshingly candid appraisal of reality. But this time, just as I was reaching up to punch another button on the radio, I had an involuntary body reaction.

Relax, I’m not referring to some juvenile, scatological outburst masquerading as editorial comment. (I save such outbursts for suggestions made by the Elder at meetings of the Fraters Libertas editorial staff.). This time I’m referring to something deeper, dare I say primordial. Their discouraging words, their bleak forecasts, their sense of helplessness and resignation, it all came together inside me to trigger .... a moan.

A deep, loud, low prolonged moan, withering with sadness and misery. The kind heard from actors in Danish melodramas about the meaninglessness of life in a small, rural town (otherwise known as “A Prairie Home Companion”). The kind of moan heard from audience members watching a Whoopie Goldberg movie. Sure I’ve heard these moans before, but it’s the first time I created one. And to my surprise, with it came .... relief.

All the darkness inspired inside of me by the government broadcasting agency was gone. I resumed feeling calm. But NPR was still on the radio, so the darkness came back again. The reporter continued to drone on about the impossibility of success in Iraq and the impossibility of even defining what “success” is. But this time, before the chest pains and existential dread were able to overtake me, I let loose with a preemptive heavy sigh. A sigh as world-weary and miserable as I imagine the NPR reporter was herself. And with it again, sweet relief.

Coming to enjoy this emotional roller coaster, I continued this game all the way into the office:

They say the US military’s inability to find weapons of mass destruction in three weeks, while simultaneously fighting a war, calls into question the legitimacy of the whole operation (dread) - I wrung my hands with worry (calm).

They say Bush administration officials deny that securing lucrative contracts for their oil industry associates was a prime motivator in starting this war (bleak void), I righteously scoffed (sunlight).

They say that George Bush seems to be following his father’s path of winning an easy war while grotesquely mismanaging the domestic economy (demons appear), I knowingly nodded my head and said in a bitterly resigned fashion “that’s so true” (demons recede).

With this morning’s experience, I do believe I’ve cracked the code on how to listen to NPR. All you need to do is divorce yourself from reason and allow yourself to experience the emotions consistent with the reporters’ viewpoint. It becomes so much easier, even enjoyable.

I just wish some of my liberal NPR-listening friends would have clued me in sooner. Since I see them moaning, heavily sighing, wringing their hands, scoffing, and bitterly nodding their heads all the time while listening to NPR, it seems they have been playing this game for years.

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