By Trent Rentsch
The stab of adrenaline that jolted through me when the cars missed by a coat of rust yanked me back to the here and now. His horn worked well, and while it scared the daydream out of me, it probably saved us from a nasty pile-up. The traffic was moving too fast, too close; there was no question that it could have resulted in months of business for body shops, chiropractors and lawyers. As it turned out all that was damaged was my nerves and underpants, easily calmed and changed. The head of the South Dakota Safety Council once told me that the word accident is no longer being used for car crashes, and I now understand why. While I would never intentionally cause harm to cars or their drivers, what might have been would have been my complete fault, as if I had spent months concocting the greatest tragedy that intersection had ever seen.
It was by no accident that I wasn’t paying attention to my driving. A song was playing on the radio, an oldie that took me back to Junior High, first dance, first kiss. The melody pulled me from the car to a time before I passed my driver’s test. I was looking into her eyes rather than at the road, trying to remember her name instead of remembering the turn signal. Where was she now, was she happy, does the same song make her smile and remember what was? A ghost from the past nearly made me a ghost in the present.
I might have never been at that intersection had things turned out differently between the two of us. Distraction has always been my enemy. “Where are you?!” she asked 5 times too often, and that was that. My tendency to take a vacation to the amusement park in my mind in the middle of a conversation was an effective puppy love killer. I can’t blame her for walking away, any more than I can blame the guy in the other car for flipping me the bird as he drove by. I was somewhere else when I should’ve been in the moment.
“Am I talking to myself?” If that question is running through your mind, odds are the answer is yes. Life is one continuous distraction, and if what you have to say doesn’t hold the listener’s attention… I need to pick up my prescription on the way home, these jeans are much tighter than they were, shouldn’t have had that bag of mini-donuts, do we need toilet paper too, MMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……………
Communication on a personal level has two components, talking and listening. Radio, while not a two-way conversation, still assumes a form of communication; the radio talks, the person tuning in listens. But just like the friend that keeps nodding to your words while thinking that they need to go get their haircut, the average radio listener will tune out anything on the air that’s unimportant to them at the moment, and will literally tune out if the broadcast continues to be unimportant for any length of time. The Communications Industry, really?
Radio today has a lot in common with Mrs. Snaghose from 7th grade English. Convinced that her mission in life was to save adolescent midwestern children from their grammatically-challenged parents, Mrs. Snaghose spent a career boring the snot out of 3 generations of potential students. I say potential students because, other than the art of sleeping with one’s eyes open, kids didn’t learn squat in her class. At the time, I thought that I was stupid, that I just didn’t get it. Later I realized that her “teaching technique” was flawed. Each day was the same, a painful lecture on adverbs, conjunctions, “I” verses “Me,” on and on and on and on… a constant, mind-numbing drone that practically begged the average pre-teen to escape anyway they could. To this day the words, “I before E, except after C” are enough to make me start making spit balls by reflex. The radio equivalent would be “For all your (fill in the product) needs…”
Down the hall, Ms. Sharptoes was what good radio should be. Those lucky enough to end up in her history class left it with a lifetime passion for the lessons of the past. The surface technique was the same; standing in front of the class and lecturing. The difference was in the way she spoke. Ms. Sharptoes didn’t just read from the textbook, she told us stories about real people with real problems. She related those problems to current events we knew, and encouraged us to decide if the solutions of the past would or would not work in the present. Her lessons evolved over the years; history didn’t change, but she understood that the vocabulary, interests, and viewpoint of her students did, so she did her best to incorporate those changes into her stories. Really, she was one of the greatest storytellers, a creative educator who understood the difference between “talking at” and “talking to” a class. Her words were engaging, compelling; in her class there was nothing cliché or old about, of all things, HISTORY!!
The more complex day to day life gets, the harder it is on a one-to-one level, even with those closest to us, to communicate. Now add the problems of being the disembodied voice of a complete stranger playing softly in the background while the listener deals with getting ready for work or filling out their tax forms or talking on the cellphone while driving in heavy traffic or… sigh. So many distractions, such a small chance to make an impression. The same old tired phrases, the dull cadence of a voice reading a script aren’t helping the situation. I hope that I’ve made it clear that the challenge is to be a compelling, interesting communicator. If not, I hope that while you were half-reading this column you at least got your grocery list finished.