Thursday, March 4, 2010


One morning when I was twenty-two and living in Rochester, N.Y, I was twirling the radio dial and heard a poet asking, "Who put the malt into the sea?" I have been a National Public Radio listener ever since.

For decades, I have prepared dinner while listening, and so NPR became part of the children's lives, too. All three of them remember the sun going down, the furnace kicking on, the smell of cooking, and the theme music to "All Things Considered." Younger Son, as a baby, thought that the radiators played that song, and Older Son still gets a Pavlovian hunger reflex when he hears it.

When Older Son was about four, a radio commentator was talking about the meaning of life as my child ate with his hands out of sheer spite. I tried to re-direct, not give it the dignity of a response, all that educated parent stuff, but when he made eye-contact and flashed a possum-eatin' grin I lost it and yelled, "Use your spoon!" just as the radio sage did the big reveal. I'll always wonder what I missed, unless, in some Zen koan way, the meaning of life is...use your spoon.

One rainy September evening when Daughter was about six, we were making chocolate chip cookies together when we heard that Dr. Seuss had died, and my little girl solemnly suggested we dedicate the cookies to his memory. He would probably like chip, two chip. Years later, when she was in high school, she was upstairs in her room while I was in the kitchen listening to Gene Simmons of "Kiss" being intolerably rude to Terry Gross on "Fresh Air." I was thinking, "I cannot believe this!" when Daughter came down the stairs saying, "Can you believe this jerk?" She'd had NPR on in her room!

I think my favorite NPR night was Terry Gross interviewing Tom Jones. Younger Son is a comic genius, and the retro, concert panty-throwing mystique of Tom Jones set him off. He imitated interviewer and guest: "Now, Mr. Jones, you are a rather ridiculous man, wouldn't you say so?" (Welsh accent) " I suppose I would, m'love." Ms. Gross played some old recordings, and the wailing vocals and 1970 brass struck YS as hilarious. Mr. Jones told about how he'd actually passed out in the recording studio from the force and duration of the last note of the Bond theme "Thunderball." Ms. Gross cued it up. We listened, thunderstruck (get it?) to the first few bars of what may be the most ridiculous song ever written, and then a sing-along erupted, louder and louder, until that last phrase: "And he fights (bahm bahm bahm bahm bahm!)/ Like Thunder/ (huge intake of breath) / BAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!"

"Thunderball" is now a thing in our house and the centerpiece of Younger Son's Bond Theme set that he keeps on his iPod for holidays.

I'll bet you thought NPR was just The News.

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