catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08


My addiction

I have an addictive personality.    My addictions aren’t serious.  I’m not addicted to substances like alcohol and drugs.  OK, sure, if I go half a day without a Diet Coke, I get a headache from caffeine withdrawal.  But of all my addictions, this one singular substance addiction is the one I have the most control over.  I can stop anytime.  I stop every year for Lent.  I wean myself off for two weeks beforehand.  Then, after Lent, I tell myself I’m going to cut down, not drink as much anymore.  And I do pretty well.  It takes me three, four months before I’m up to six a day.  But every year, by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, I’m drinking nine or ten a day.  No, I’m not your average addict.  My addictions are pure personality flaws.

I’m not addicted to normal addictive-personality addictions like pornography or gambling (though I fear if I ever went to Vegas I’d lose my shirt).  I am addicted to shopping, but not in the Confessions of a Shopaholic way.  I hate shopping for clothes. I am addicted to buying things I do not need and can’t afford.  I’m addicted to entertainment, and therefore I buy CD’s, DVD’s, movie posters, books, playbills, television scripts.  I bought an autographed photo of Colin Firth in his D’Arcy clothes.  I own two scripts to Scarecrow & Mrs. King episodes.  I spent more money than I care to mention on an Australian post card of Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom.  I have a statue of Gollum in a place of prominence in my living room.  I have Harry Potter bookends.

I’m addicted to entertainment outside the realm of shopping as well.  I once drove 14 hours from St. Louis to New York in order to spend one night and drive back the next day.  The occasion?  Gabriel Byrne was performing in Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway.  My friend Robin is the Gabriel Byrne fan.  I like him, but he’s no Colin Firth.  But I jumped at the chance to go.  We’re going back this summer to see Spamalot, if we can get tickets now that it won the Tony.  That’s right, I watch the Tony’s.  I watch the Academy Awards and the Emmy’s too.   I’m addicted to entertainment talk.  Not talk shows, actual talk!  I find that if you don’t know someone, or worse, don’t like them, you can always talk about movies.  Have you seen Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  What did you think about the new Star Wars movie?   I’ve been known to insert myself into the conversations of complete strangers because I overhear them talking about a book I want to read or a television show I’ve recently discovered.  I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer every morning, and have done so for four years.  The first time I saw Strictly Ballroom, I was so blown away, I went out and bought the video, the first I ever owned.  I watched that movie every day for the first four months.  Obviously, I memorized it.  Of course, this isn’t a new thing.  When I was 10 years old, my grandparents had one of those gigantic satellite dishes that took up the whole back yard.  This was before the day of the scrambler, when you could literally watch anything that was being transmitted from space at any given time, as long as you could find it.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I watched Sixteen Candles that summer, but I remember that 100 was a landmark, and I didn’t stop there. 

I’m addicted to politics.  If I could, I would add more time in the day just so that I could read more of my Time and Newsweek.  I volunteered for the Kerry Campaign and last year, despite the fact that I had absolutely no time to spare between school and work.  I was one of those people who got so carried away I threatened to leave the country if Bush was reelected.  If only I could.  I am head over heels in love with both Bill Maher and Jon Stewart 1.  I am being completely serious, though no one ever believes me.  I would have their children in a second.  There’s nothing in the world sexier to me than a smart man who can mix comedy and politics.  Well, as long as it’s my politics.  I am a member of Amnesty International.  I have been known, on weekdays when I’m home, and nobody is around to catch me, to watch C-SPAN 2 for fun. It’s my guilty pleasure.  I’ve never told a soul. When my boss informed me that I had to start coming in at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, instead of 10 a.m., I was furious because it meant missing Meet the Press.  I tape it now.

But I have one addiction that surpasses them all:  NPR, National Public Radio.  I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of NPR until I started working at a bookstore in 1997.  It started as a low buzz.  I’m looking for a book I heard on Diane Rehm this morning. . .   I heard about this new CD on Fresh Air last week, but I can’t remember the name, do you know it?  It’s by that guy who used to sing in that band. . .  Do you carry Prairie Home Companion on CD?  Gradually I began to understand that all these people, my people, my kind of people, the literate, the educated, the book-buyers of the world all had this thing, this obsession, this source of knowledge and ideas in common.  What was it all about?  The gentle hum of a clientele engrossed gradually became the loud clamor of co-workers.  In the break room: Did you hear Car Talk this weekend?  On the floor:  Did you know that…I heard it on NPR.  Suddenly it was everywhere.  It left the realm of the workplace and entered my social sphere.  One of my best-friends:  Do you ever listen to This American Life?  There was this great theme on last weekend: cross-dressers.  My other best friend:  Could you get me an autographed copy of that Michael Feldman CD?  It’ll make a great Father’s Day present.  I couldn’t get over it.  It was as if the world had been keeping this huge secret from me.  There was a goldmine out there that I was unaware of.  I decided to try it.  Reluctantly, I turned the morning radio dial from those two jerky jocks that always, somehow, made me laugh.  News?  There’s nothing new here.  I heard all of this on Headline News before I left the house.  I don’t get it.  What’s all the hubbub about?  So I turned back to my morning show with the pranks and the music.

And then came September 11, 2001.  I first became aware of the events of that disastrous day on my regular morning radio show, the one with the pranksters.  I quickly turned on all three televisions in the house, each to a different 24-hour news channel.  And after my morning show ended, I turned my radio to NPR.  And I’ve never turned it back.  Like so many Americans, I spent the next two weeks devouring news as if it were the elixir of life.  Suddenly, news was all I cared about.  In the car.  At the office.  In the gym.  I left the radio on all night as I slept; BBC World News invading my dreams. 

My last job had several stages.  There was the beginning, where I felt like I was really doing something worth while.  Immediately followed by the incredibly productive period.  Then the immensely challenging period.  Then the period where I moved into my own office, with a door, but the work was slow and boring, uninspired.  Then there was the busy, learning period.  My favorite?  The period with the office, the door, and the quiet – where I could turn on NPR, as loud as I wanted, and hear every syllable of every word.  I hated to get a phone call for fear of missing that interesting caller’s comment, or the guests answer to a caller’s stupid question.  I blew off my friends to eat lunch in my office if they couldn’t be bothered to eat between eleven and noon when St. Louis on the Air was on, a show I didn’t care about.  I might go after one o’clock, if I hadn’t heard that something particularly interesting was on Talk of the Nation.  But leave me alone between noon and one.  No one comes between me and Terry Gross. 

When I had to leave that office and move into a room with three other people, one who listens to country music and the other who prefers absolute silence, my heart was broken.  I loved my coworkers.  I loved their company.  I ached for my NPR.  At precisely the same time as this move, my hours changed too.  The other disadvantage to having to come in at 7 a.m. on Sunday:  I couldn’t listen to On the Media at work and then rush to my car before This American Life starts so I could listen to it on my way home. 

I’ve racked my brain as to why I’m so addicted to this station.  I’ve told myself lots of things.  It’s the only place where every show builds in a segment where they read listener comments, good and bad.  It’s the only place where they voice their retractions, loud and clear and at the appropriate time when listeners who heard the original story can hear the correction.  When Morning Edition changed their format, and it was announced that Bob Edwards was leaving, the nation was upset.  It was mentioned on the floor of the Senate.  But more importantly, it was openly discussed on other NPR programs.  They took callers who were angry.  NPR personalities spoke out about the injustice.  Terry Gross interviewed Bob Edwards about his feelings about the move, and they weren’t terribly complimentary of NPR.  Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior vice president for programming, hosted a webchat where he answered the questions and concerns of the listeners who were so outraged at his decision to dump their favorite morning host.  I mean, who does that?  What station in their right mind, in a world about one-upmanship and never admitting when you’re wrong, and refusing to even believe there is an alternate opinion, comes out, honestly, and shows their audience they care?  Where else are you going to find such honesty and integrity in the media?  Certainly, he defended the decision to change the programming and asked the NPR audience to give the new format a chance.  But he didn’t have to enter into any dialogue with their listeners at all.  Most stations wouldn’t bother.  I mean, if I am looking for a source to my love of NPR, these are certainly good enough reasons. But I was addicted to NPR long before that fiasco, so it can hardly be a full explanation for my love affair. 

For Aura, the friend who introduced me to This American Life, it’s the association with her childhood.  Her father and grandmother have always listened to NPR incessantly, and for her it’s comforting, “like a lulling nanny”, she tells me.  Also there’s the social responsibility aspect.  Her hippie father insists on being well informed as to the goings-on in high places, so he knows what to protest or get irate about.  Aura was born in a commune.  She is a flower child.  She has a legacy to uphold.  Listening to NPR fuels her indignation, and she feels like her father’s daughter. 

But that doesn’t apply to me.  My mother never listened to talk radio when I was a child.  Talk was boring and music was necessary.  That’s how I was raised.  That, too, has changed.  In fact, I credit myself with her addiction to NPR.  Shortly after my addiction formed, hers began and soon surpassed mine.  My obsessions tend to be contagious.

Last summer, on the long drive down to Hilton Head from St. Louis, we, my mother and I, made an adventure out of finding the local NPR stations.  We would listen to a station long after the static took over, until we could no longer make out the words.  Then we would search the dial for another station.  Sometimes, we would pick up a new station that was clean and clear, and wonder at ourselves for waiting so long to look.  Other times, we wouldn’t find anything for hours at a stretch.  It was agonizing for us, the adults in the front seat who feared missing our favorite shows.  It was excruciating for the teenager in the backseat who, having no interest in talk radio at all, mistakenly believed that when we couldn’t find an NPR station, she would be able to listen to music.  Instead, every 5 minutes, she had to suffer our desperate search for our station, always disappointed when we found it.

I’m a graduate student at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and all of my classes take place in Lucas Hall.  In the basement of that building, next to the vending machines that feed my Diet Coke® addiction, is my local NPR affiliate, KWMU.  The walls down the hallway outside the studio are strung with giant autographed pictures of NPR personalities.  As I trek down that hallway, soda in hand, chatting with my classmates, I always get a little thrill at my proximity to the source of my addiction, like a gambler in Vegas or an alcoholic in Milwaukee.  I smile, inwardly, as I look up at Cokie Roberts and Garrison Keillor, smiling down on me, my classmates unaware of any change in my attitude, though it is there; imperceptible, secret joy.  It’s not a permanent change, not a reforming joy.  It’s just that slight surge of emotion that overtakes the mind, pretending to be the pitter patter of the heart, upon seeing the object of your affection, your ideal, that guy you have an intense and unrealistic infatuation with, your crush.  It is at once pleasure and pain.  The warmth of proximity and the certain knowledge of the unattainable. 

I once heard a man talk about the time that he had the opportunity to call and speak with a radio personality who he had grown up listening to.  That person was slightly cold to the man, and even the hint of such coldness was offensive to him.  He said he believed his expectations to be too high.  He felt he had a relationship with this radio personality, and while he was expecting intimacy, he received cordiality, and it was hurtful.  He remarked that he never would have expected a television anchorman to treat him with warmth and intimacy the way he did this radio personality, but that radio gives a false sense of intimacy to the listener.  “There is just something about radio.  It’s more personal.”  I know how he feels.  It’s how I feel when I walk down that hallway and I realize that these people will never know me the way I imagine I know them.  We will never have serious talks over coffee or laughs over wine.  This is an unrequited love; such is the nature of addiction.

And yet, part of the appeal is the sense of being a part of something, a group, a type, a community.  I assume that certain people, my classmates, and certain friends listen to NPR, and I talk to them with that assumption in mind; It was as funny as O’Reilley on Fresh Air.  That’s so Keilloresque.  Get your hands off my car.  Who do you think you are, Click and Clack?  When I learn that someone who seems an unlikely fan, in fact, listens to NPR, my respect for them increases.  Oh, you’re one of us!  I never knew.  Welcome to the club.  As if NPR is some elite organization that you have to prove yourself worthy to join.  Or the act of listening to NPR is a litmus test for my respect.  The whole point of National Public Radio, the PBS of the FM dial, is to make quality news and entertainment available to the masses.  But to me, somehow, it’s become a grand Country Club, membership by invitation only.  Am I really that much of a snob? No, it’s not that.  Really, it isn’t.  I never saw it before.  I had to have it pointed out to me by someone else, someone who knows me better than I know myself.  It’s not that I see it as an exclusive club.  But I do need to see it as a club, a community.  I’m comfortable around the people who worked at that bookstore.  I’m comfortable around the clientele.  They are my people.  And when I listen to NPR, I am their people.  One of them.  The NPR community feeds my need to feel accepted, a part of the group.  They understand me in ways the other groups in my life don’t.  They make me feel like I belong.

I’m a lapsed born-again Christian.  Still faithful but not so much practicing.  I tell my fellow congregants that my Sunday work schedule is responsible for my absence these last two years.  But in my heart I know it’s something else.  Not doubt.  Never doubt.  But shame.  Not of my faith or my God but the people in the pews next to me.  No, not really them either.  My church actually has a fair mix of the progressive and conservative.  My shame is in the other Christians, the famous ones, the one who make us all look bad and therefore find the spotlight easier.  There is nothing the liberal press loves more than exposing the hypocrisy of the church.  Nothing unites the left so much as hatred for religion.  And I believe in the necessity of a liberal press.  I don’t deny it, but embrace it.  I hate that the Republicans have hijacked the Christian faith.  I despise the ignorant uninterested irresponsible Christians, my friends, my family, good, kind, loving, funny, inspiring people who can’t be bothered to find out the facts and make up their individual minds, but look to a stereotype.  They think:  “The Republicans tell me they’re the Christians.  The Democrats make fun of my faith.  I must be a Republican.”  But they don’t act in your best interest.  They milk the poor and feed the wealthy.  They stand for everything Christ stood against.  I plead with them, with their fingers in their ears, mumbling “I can’t hear you.  I can’t hear you.  You don’t exist.” These people who share my faith sometimes make me physically ill.  I search desperately for a community.  There have to be people out there like me.  My friend Aura and her husband, they’re like me.  My mom.  And my radio station. 

Which is not to say that NPR is Christian.  Of course it’s not.  But it’s also not Christian hating.  Yes, liberals are more likely to listen to NPR, but I believe that’s because they have their fingers out of their ears.  They want to know what’s really going on in the world.  The NPR listener does not respect Fox News and all its bias.  The NPR listener does not despise my faith.  Or at least, the NPR personalities don’t put my faith on trial, to be ridiculed and mocked at.  So I choose it as my community.  I choose it as my church.  I still worship the God of my bible, but I worship him through his Truth where I can find it, and I find it on NPR.  I know that I’m coming dangerously close to blasphemy, but I feel cornered, with nowhere else to turn.  I am disappointed by my church.  Not my physical church but the popular one.  The American Church.  The church of George W. Bush, Jerry Fallwell, and James Dobson.  I crave the Truth and they use it to hide their lies. 

But when I’m listening to NPR, I feel at home.  I listen with a discerning ear, always afraid of hearing the hint of bias. To find out it’s all a lie.  I’ve been duped.  And occasionally, it’s there, hiding in the tone of a commentator’s voice or the turn of a loaded phrase.  And I’m crestfallen.  Then, a few hours later: the same story; a different reporter; a different viewpoint; a different tilt.  A tilt that restores the balance.  And I tell myself, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.  These are the things that justify my faith in NPR.  The honesty.  The integrity.  The open fallibility.  God is infallible.  NPR is not, but it strives to be. I can relate. 

Am I taking this addiction too far?  Is it too much?  Am I bound to be disappointed?  My obsession is so great that even this essay is modeled after NPR.  I formed it in a Glassian way, that is, as I think Ira Glass would have formed it.  The way he forms his program, This American Life.  First, a lead in with short, succinct and humorous examples of the theme for the night, addiction to Diet Coke®, shopping, movie memorabilia.  Then, the trademark phrase.  The subject for tonight is Unusual Addictions.  Act I, NPR, Finding Your Faith in Radio.  Act II. . .  Only there is no Act II.  Act I takes up the whole hour.  That’s how strange this addiction is.  There’s no room for anything else.  I try the local community radio station, KDHX.  At least once a week I try it out, for grins.  I like the programming and the music.  They even play some NPR shows that my affiliate doesn’t.  But it doesn’t feed my habit.  A huge fan of ‘80’s music, I try the new retro station in town.  I wonder what I’m missing on NPR.  I can’t do it.  I have to change back.  But I don’t.  I have to control myself.  I have to learn to make room in my life for Blondie.  "Tainted Love" needs to retain its place in my heart.  NPR can’t have it.

Maybe it’s not such a hopeless addiction.  If I can recognize this need for something else in my life, maybe it isn’t so dangerous.  If I can make myself stay tuned to, even enjoy, the other station; the "Stray Cat Strut," the "One Night in Bangkok;" the "Come On Eileen," then I’m not past the point of no return.  And if I can recognize the addiction; talk about it; write about it; think it through, then maybe, just maybe, I’m not bound to be disappointed.  My awareness is my shield, my protection.  My discernment is my spiritual gift, my ability to recognize the Truth, to seek it in the mire; this ability is my compass, my rod, my staff.  And I can take comfort.  Relax.  Be still. Be myself, and yet still a part of something greater.

And maybe someday I will get the opportunity to meet one of these NPR on-air personalities who I’ve come to think of as my friends, my community, like the man I mentioned above who finally got to speak with his idol, only to be treated with a coldness in contrast to his expectations of intimacy.  I understand completely how he felt because I know I would feel the same way if I got the opportunity to speak with him and he treated me any other way than with intimacy and mutual admiration.  That man, who I feel like I know so well because his voice is in my head at least one hour out of every week.  That man, Ira Glass.  That’s right.  That story I heard about the false intimacy of radio, I heard it on NPR.

1 Al Franken’s pretty hot too.

2 And I don’t mean BookTV, though that’s good too.  I mean actually watching Congress and the Senate in session.  And it’s never on really exciting days when everyone’s present or they’re debating over whether or not to go to war (I’m not sure either of which has happened in my lifetime) but on days where the Senator from Montana gives an hour long speech on an amendment to the energy bill that he’s not even going to propose this year, and they have to do roll call because no one is even sure there’s a quorum.

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