Here’s the absolute best thing about modern life – the thing that makes living now better than living before. It’s a portable music player thing. I put thousands of songs on my iPod, and I walk around with headphones in. Lots of people do. But I play my songs in whatever order they want to be played. They shuffle, like a deck of cards – or like Vegas, with hundreds and hundreds of cards. In Vegas, sometimes, the exact right card comes up and you get your 3 of a kind – for my iPod, sometimes, the exact right song comes on.
Usually, I wish I was born before. I wish I was born when you had to wait by your telephone if you were hoping someone would call, or gather the family around at a specific time for the television show to come on, or walking around town meant walking around a town with only your town’s shops, and your town’s employees.
The right music at the right moment, played directly into my ears – that’s the sort of thing that can only happen with microchips and central processing units. When I was a kid, I carried around a CD Walkman and a couple CD’s in slim jewel cases (a name I always liked, “jewel cases”) and the effect wasn’t nearly the same as thousands of songs, shuffling, ready for the virtual needle to come and start the right order of 1’s and 0’s.
Some people aren’t enlightened. My Dad’s friend still only listens to vinyl, claiming he can hear the 1’s and 0’s (and proving it, actually, time and time again). He buys diamond tipped needles, wipes each record with a microfiber cloth before he places it on his turntable. His record player has a robotic arm so that it lowers the needle perfectly, and the irony was never lost on me.
I pity the poor man. He can’t have two song showers that pit someone from Wu Tang Records against a Blue Note jazz vocalist. He’s never sat on a bus, sharing an earbud, hearing the vocals of Yellow Submarine while his girlfriend hears the instrumentation, then switching. He can never take his vinyl set-up to the beach, in a car full of people, windows down, turning up the volume to war against the wind’s roar.
The nostalgia of music trumps the nostalgia for technology. I’ll never miss the hissy, cordless black telephone I grew up with. The signal only reached the shared bathroom. I had a lot of high school conversations sitting on the counter, my feet in my sink filled with warm water. I won’t miss my old computer, either, which would load internet chats one line at a type, like I was typing them with the hunt-and-peck method. When I miss my old ska records, though, I turn it on with a few clicks. And then I turn it off, and I wonder what I was thinking.
When I’m roasting on the beach with my friends, applying sunscreen at the same speed our friends are going through six packs, I have an earbud in and I can hear electronic beats applying to the stutter of everyone’s movements. When it switches to an old country crooner, everyone’s languid. We laugh and I pretend the singer is on the other side of my vision, just out of reach.
There’s a girl on the beach too. I’ve seen her everywhere – no exaggeration. She seems to be lurking on the edge of party pictures on Facebook, and my iPod switches to some indie singer’s solo piano project. I can’t tell if she’s with anyone. She keeps dipping herself under the water and then coming back up. She puts her hair in a loose ponytail, and everything she does is underscored by the beauty of the piano.
When I was a kid, I was at a concert in the park with my parents. The band was a glorified wedding band, playing covers and letting some of the park-goers sing karaoke, but the night was warm and the fried chicken my mom made was delicious, and there was a girl in front of me that had beautiful skin. She was barefoot and she tapped her feet to the beat and nodded her head, like I was doing, and all I could do was wish that I could have the courage to go up and ask her to dance. I was about to, and then Meatloaf’s seminal classic, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” came on, and I decided it was a sign.
While we were driving to the beach, when it was left to its own devices, my iPod played songs about partying, and going to the beach, and being out in the sun. It played “Mr. Blue Sky” and we put the sun roof up and everything felt perfect, music and life melding as one, like a movie, but better.
My iPod was playing coy. Instead of bold choices, it was playing audiobook bits, an experimental mash-up of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, a bargain bin find of the Blue Man Group’s album. I kept pressing seek (another perfect word) and letting little snatches of songs play, looking for musical, lyrical advice. The girl was body-surfing. The foam of the water looked like a warped mirror of the sky up above. I badly wanted to go into the water, and hold the girl’s hand while waves crashed over us.
I stopped propping myself up, stopped watching her, and I put my arm over my eyes while I skipped tracks, and skipped tracks, until I hit a bit of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and my iPod stopped all together. I picked it up off my towel and looked at it – screen blank. Batteries dead.
I looked up at the girl, and took my earbuds out, and I noticed she was singing. So I went to hear.