March 18, 2003
Background Music

"Is it war yet?" asks The Main Nerdy Geotechnical Guy.

It is the middle of the morning on Tuesday, and he has stopped in front of my desk on his way to the Dirt Company lunchroom ... his arms loaded down with moldy coffee cups, a couple of squishy brown bananas, an empty yogurt container and a half-eaten salami sandwich. (It's either Office Cleaning Day over on the geotech side of the building or else he's just finished eating the world's most revolting breakfast.) I glance at his face to see if he's serious -- this is a guy who finds whoopee cushions and Austin Powers movies riotously funny -- but his expression, behind the Coke-bottle glasses, is basically unreadable. He could either be genuinely interested in the war ... or he could be setting me up for another cheese-eating-surrender-monkey joke. There's no way to tell.

"Not yet," I reply. And I reach over to turn up the radio a little more so we can both hear it.

I've started listening to news radio all the time now while I'm at work. The ancient Emerson portable doesn't pick up a lot of viable stations: I had to navigate up and down the AM dial half a dozen times before I finally found a station that doesn't hiss or crackle or offer up thirty seconds' worth of commentary followed by fifteen minutes' worth of noisy commercials for motor oil and life insurance. But eventually I found a nice innocuous station at some midpoint on the dial -- KCBS, I think it is: all news/all the time -- and now it buzzes quietly next to my computer all day long, while I'm answering phones and drinking bitter black coffee and pretending to type concrete test cylinder reports. Whenever there's some big news development, like President Bush addressing the nation yesterday afternoon, the radio station drops everything and carries the broadcast live. Whenever that happens, I turn it up and actively pay attention. Sometimes my co-workers stand in front of my desk and listen along with me. The rest of the time, I keep the volume tuned very low ... like a tea kettle on the back burner, dialed down to perpetual simmer.

It's not that I have this burning desire to know everything that happens in the world -- every nuance of opinion, every microscopic nondevelopment -- the absolute instant it happens. I don't. My feeling, generally, is that if it's bad news, I'm going to hear about it eventually. (And if it's REALLY bad news, I'm probably going to know about it a whole lot sooner than that.) And it's certainly not as if I enjoy or agree with or understand everything I'm listening to. On a good day, when I'm feeling relatively well-rested and properly caffeinated and none of my undergarments are pinching in distracting places -- I understand maybe 55% of what I'm hearing on the radio. The rest of it is like listening to football: weird, incomprehensible, pointlessly violent, maddeningly redundant.

But I listen to it anyway, because that's what you do when you're a grown-up.

At the moment, things appear to be quiet. We're halfway through the President's forty-eight hour "Get out of Dodge" ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, and so far nothing has happened. The radio announcer is mostly talking about the weather.

Undaunted, the Main Nerdy Geotechnical Guy leans toward me, smiling a conspiratorial little smile. "Hey," he says, in a low voice, as though he is about to impart the secret of The Great Pyramids of Khufu. "Do you know what Iraq's national bird is?"

I shrug politely.

"DUCK!" he cackles in glee. "Iraq's national bird is a DUCK! Get it?"

I smile -- Gosh, that gets funnier every time I hear you tell it! -- but I'm sure it's obvious that my heart isn't in it. Looking weirdly disappointed by our entire encounter, the MNGG ambles off toward the kitchen with his armload of moldy coffee cups, no doubt in search of a more appreciative audience for his riotously funny brand of humor.

As soon as he's gone, I lean over and turn the radio back down to its usual low-level/low-tech buzz. I can barely hear it ... but that's OK. It's not about the news, anyway: it's about feeling plugged in to the world. The real news will come later. When I get home tonight, David and I will sit down in front of the TV, with our plates of spaghetti, and we'll watch the news together. We'll discuss the latest developments. I'll ask questions about the stuff I don't understand. He'll explain what all of this means to our country, our children, our jobs, our retirement fund. At the end of the evening I'll go to bed feeling -- if not comforted, exactly -- then at least slightly less stoopid about everything.

In the meantime, though, AM radio has sort of become the background music of my workday ... along with low-flying helicopters, street corner protesters, emergency sirens in the distance ...

... and cheese-eating-surrender-monkey jokes in the Dirt Company kitchen.

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how was the ministry concert?