Crying on public transit (is thinking about feelings still metacognition?)

I got ambushed on the skytrain this morning by a podcast. 99% Invisible wrapped an episode of Song Exploder into this week’s episode. A full episode. Possibly the best Song Exploder episode. The one with John Roderick from the Long Winters, talking about The Commander Thinks Aloud.

The first time I heard that episode was at work. I cried at my desk. And then I was wrecked for two days, every time I thought about the episode. The song got stuck in my head, and listening to it made me have to carefully control my breathing.

This time was on my morning commute. I cried on the train. I’m not the only one this happens to. Talking about it on twitter made me feel heavy again, so at lunch I looked up the song on youtube and listened again with my eyes closed.

But why? Why does that episode and then the song make me cry so much? Is it the themes? The song itself? Something about the context in which I listen? John Roderick’s storytelling skills?

Theory 1: The themes hit all my soft spots.

My first thought was that it has something to do with themes. There are themes in there about creative process, learning how much you have yet to learn, space travel, tragedy. Tragedy. I must have a soft spot for a good tragedy; as I’ve said previously, I love Grave of the Fireflies, even though it breaks my heart. Maybe there’s something here, but this seems too heady an explanation to be true, and it’s not just me that’s affected here.

Theory 2: The song is just like that.

But I’d heard that song before. I have it on a compilation from ages ago. I’d heard it countless times, and it had never affected like that in past. But I didn’t really get what it was about before. It’s possible that now that having the meaning behind the song has opened it up to affect me in ways it never could before, but I think that’s an argument against the final product of the song being all that’s necessary.

Theory 3: The listening context makes me more likely to cry at anything.

People cry on airplanes. It’s a thing. I’ve experienced it myself. Only on an airplane (and on a day when everything in my life was changing) could Mission Impossible 3 bring me to tears. I listen with cheap but isolating in-ear headphones, and that feeling of being cut off from the world can definitely help me get drawn into a story. Add to that the “aloneness among strangers” and the stillness after hurrying out of the house, and there’s maybe something to the idea that the context makes me more susceptible to tears.

Theory 4: John Roderick tells a mighty good story.

I think this one is the kicker. John is a very different person from me, but there’s something about the way he tells stories that is both so mellow and also so jam-packed with deep emotion. I think this might be the answer, but I’m not sure why. Here I am, trying to bottle the magic on why this episode of a podcast affects me so strongly, and I come back again to a mystery. What makes a good story, and a good ? I’ve yet to come across a better answer than Chip and Dan had: simple, emotional, concrete, credible stories. And John’s a master at it.

I think I’m done getting meta on the meta. Listen to the episode and tell me on twitter if it does or doesn’t affect you.

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