Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cassettes, CDs, Playlists

We called them dub tapes, because of the process of expertly pressing play on the right-hand cassette player, and the record and play buttons at the same time on the left side, dubbing what was played on one side, to be recorded on the other song-by-song to assemble individual, personalized audio cassettes.

My sister started making these mixes and, like so many creative endeavors, I followed her lead until the both of us brought these tapes to my grandmother’s house on Sunday evenings to showcase them on Grandma Jean’s stereo while we played Scrabble and Pinochle or worked on arts and crafts projects. I remember listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” as back-to-back songs to close one of those early mixes and thinking that it sounded epic, and perfect, and far better than the component pieces could ever be as stand-alone tracks.

I started writing novels in high school and associated particular songs with particular scenes. One of the rewards at the end of each project was making a new mix as a soundtrack to each draft. Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” was the love theme from Free Throw, backed by Matchbox 20’s “Girl Like That” for a montage of the protagonist preparing to ask out his love interest and Semisonic’s “This Will Be My Year” for the New Year’s scene in which they get together. I wrote a vampire novel with more greater intensity, anchored by Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” a novel about high school nerds featuring REM’s “Hope,” a novel about robots with music ranging from Lifehouse to Pat Benatar to the Indigo Girls to Creed.

I made mixes for girls. Sharing my music, embracing the mix CD as a bridge between self-expression and demonstrating an understanding of someone else by assembling a collection of songs she wouldn’t know but would like. Would adore, even, and by extension adore me. Such mixes achieved mixed results.

I started burning soundtracks to years. Compilations of music to mark the events of a year--the music I was listening to it various times in a year or that were introduced to me by different people, or that I remembered hearing at specific moments. An autobiography as told through the music other people made.

I made mix CDs to edit and write and layout by in the newspaper office in college and to listen to on my increasingly frequent road trips that came up after college as I aimed to stay in touch with people who were still at school, people at home, people who had moved to new but not unreasonably distant locales, and later on trips to review a cappella shows.

Indeed, time in the car became inextricably connected to music for me. Driving alone, I’d listen to new favorites, but also not hesitate to break out guilty pleasures from my youth--the Rod Stewart, the Kid Rock. And when I knew I would have passengers, I more often than not invested a few minutes in the car before I picked them up to plug in the CD I thought would best facilitate that particular ride.

And then I plotted a trip across the country to move from Baltimore, Maryland to Covallis, Oregon. I had the luxury of an excess of time, pay off from my excess of left over vacation days made it financially viable to rent a moving truck and hold onto it for ten days. A charted a course through the Midwest and north to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Twin Falls in Idaho.

And, of course, I made mixes.

By then they were playlists. Not bound by 45-minute cassette sides or an 80-minute CD. The only real limitation was the capacity of my iPhone, but space was measured in gigabytes. I made some general playlists. Old favorites I rediscovered in the process of organizing and packing old CDs. New discoveries.

Around that time, Tom Petty had a new album coming out, Hypnotic Eye. Truth be told, it had been years since Petty released music that I much connected with, and though I suspected I would eventually check out the album, I didn’t feel especially compelled to download it for the drive. But amidst the press about the new album came a lot of reflection on Petty’s previous work. A career retrospective from Grantland. A countdown of his top tracks on any number of music sites.

I remembered a childhood growing up on Full Moon Fever. Choreographing a lip sync routine to “I Won’t Back Down.” Writing a song that was a pretty transparent rip off of “Apartment Song.” Listening to Wildflowers in high school, and singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” at open mic nights in college. The dozens of other Petty tracks I’d encountered over the years.

I set to ripping old CDs and to downloading. Over the course of an hour or so, I relived roughly 30 years of material to arrive at a personalized playlist of all of my favorite songs from the Petty catalog, arranged to ebb and flow, front loaded with Americana rock along the lines of “American Girl,” “Saving Grace,” and “You Wreck Me,” dipping down to “A Face in the Crowd,” closing on the one-two punch of “Here Comes My Girl” and “Learning To Fly.” To my ear, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are synonymous with traveling music, and as such, I wound up with 90 minutes of perfect songs to speed across highways and rouse myself on moonlit country roads.

I’ve never been much of a musician, as much as I’ve tried to be one now and again, and as much as I’ve written about other people’s music. Making these mixes is my gateway to that world--the songwriter, the singer, the dude who shreds it on his electric guitar. I can take the work and, in a small way, make it my own. Codify it. Tell a new story.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Landing On Earth

I did not jump out of a plane.

That was the story I intended to tell when I booked my skydiving excursion. But truth be told, when I was strapped to the professional skydiver, Steve, poised at the edge of the plane, he offered me one last reminder not to jump, not to slide, not to push off. To let him do everything.

The plane itself was rickety, old, and rusted out, with just enough cargo room for two pairs of tandem divers. In recounting the experience, I’ve always told friends that this was the most frightening part—taking flight in a vehicle that seemed so unsure of itself, like the engine might give out at any moment, long before we reached an altitude at which a parachute would do any good.

There was one other comparably terrifying part. The moment at which the first pair of divers tumbled from plane--theoretically a dive but more of a graceless fall from the doorway out into nothingness.

When Steve pushed us off from the plane, everything spun. I had imagined the dive as more of a flat fall--like belly flopping off a diving board. Instead, our bodies whirled like a discus. Nausea set in within seconds. I’ve never been good with these sudden turn-turn-turns.

When spinning stopped, I remembered to scream. This was what I remembered above everything else I had read in advance about skydiving. That screaming was not only reasonable and a socially acceptable expression of fear and excitement in the context of freefall, but actively practical as a way forcing air out of the lungs. Inhaling is easy when air pushes into your every cavity at terminal velocity. Exhaling requires effort.

Steve didn’t scream. He calmly reached forward, pressed a gloved hand to my forehead, and pushed my head back against his shoulder, my brow to his cheek.

We reached the critical point when it was appropriate for Steve to activate the parachute. We went from horizontal to vertical and in this part of the fall, it was easier to hear one another (in part because I had stopped screaming). At this point, he reminded me of the banana-shape I was supposed to have curled my body into during that initial fall—that I was supposed to have had my head back the whole time, and to have kicked back my legs to curl into his body—a more aerodynamic formation, besides which, when I instinctively curled my head forward, I made it harder for him to see where we were going.

I remember listening to this lecture as we started to spin again, less like a discus, more of a tandem pirouette in the sky. I felt vomit bubble to the back of my throat and choked it back down.

We landed on solid ground without incident. I remembered the correct position for my body this time, legs kicked out, and we hit the dirt of the field in a motion like sliding into home base.


After it all, I returned to the skydiving office area where I had watched my safety video and had both learned and forgotten the banana position. Where I had waited for my name to be called. I waited again, longer this time, for my name to come up again, to collect a CD full of pictures from the experience. It dawned on me that there was every possibility these pictures may be more impactful than the experience itself. That my experience in the air had, in total, lasted less than twenty minutes. That it hadn’t fundamentally changed me, in the ways I had intellectually knew it probably wouldn’t, but had nonetheless hoped it might.

Two years later, I look back at that as a microcosm for so much of my life. I write about these moments in order to extend them. To remember reading the waiver that warned me skydiving had a particularly high risk of causing death, the moment when I asked Steve how many jumps he had made before (a reassuring “I don’t even know. Probably over a hundred by now”), the bruises that the harness left over my shoulders, the car sickness that compounded my nausea during the bumpy van ride over a private road from the field back to the office, and besides all of that, the realization after it was all over that I had just survived the longest fall from the greatest height of my life.

I write the words and everything before, and most particularly during the fall rushes to me. One hundred twenty miles per hour. Spinning. Dropping. The weight of the earth beneath my feet again.