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Growing Up and Plugging Out


It’s Sunday and my neck is still sore. I don’t have meningitis and I wasn’t in a car wreck. What I did was buy a turntable, and on Friday night we played it loudly. Here’s why and what it might mean for you, especially if you are a dad:

A year ago, I was living in the Middle East. My wife was a foreign correspondent and for five years she and I quite happily turned over our cultural life, such as it was, to the digital realm. Doing so was convenient, fast, and avoided the strict censorship rules unique to various countries we called home (Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and also meant we could stream NPR and download Mad Men and follow friends and read the novelSwamplandia when we heard about how awesome it was. (It was phenomenal.)

Meanwhile, our daughter was born in Riyadh and got measles in Yemen and first started crawling in Qatar and in general was the owner of a very thick passport. By the time she could talk, she could gape at bookshelves in her room, stuffed with stories about tigers arriving for tea and various troublesome rabbits. My wife and I, meanwhile, had no books, at least nothing our daughter could see. In our room, “reading” had come to mean a father staring at a glowing phone and a mother trying to find a cord for something called a Kindle.

So I’ll never forget the afternoon, in our Beirut apartment, when the little girl regarded us and all her many books and our not-books and said: “Why don’t you have any books?”

From that day forward, I never again purchased a digital book.

THEN IT WAS SEVERAL years later and my daughter was five. We were living in Los Angeles. Not only had I re-assembled her bookshelves and filled them again with good material, but I’d also gotten her a library card, which we used so often the numbers rubbed off. Meanwhile, at long last, our living room was dominated by a wall of real adult titles: Books from college, from when I was an editor in New York, from my wife’s time reporting on terrorism and Russia and Islam and reading Rebecca West, and now months and months of review copies sent to us by publishers. All the boxes had been unpacked. We were done moving. This was a house we were trying to call home, part of a new American life we were trying to call our own.

We were no longer expatriates, the kind of ghosts who can float above decision-making, always resting on the fact we were just visitors, about to leave, that we needed to stay light, that there was some real and rooted adulthood in the distance. Instead, for the first time in many years, my wife and I were nesting, accumulating, slowing down and thinking about who we were and who we wanted to be, and what shape it could take.

In addition to maintaining our dedication to physical books, we now spent a lot of time and effort figuring out where our kid should go to kindergarten. Also, how to buy vegetables. And what was the best way to landscape our very small Southern California front yard. How many re-usable shopping bags to buy? And which was the best route to bike home with groceries? These decisions felt like the meaningful and ethical acts of American citizens, the purposeful blueprint of how one could parent and what kind of kid we wanted to try to help create.

In this spirit of taking stock and trying to do it well, it was with emotion and regret that I found myself thinking about the sorry state of our music collection, which sprawled over a set of semi-functional hard drives, an iPod from 2002, and some scratched-up CDs.

The fact was this: I may have turned away from digital books, but even when I had been a full-on digital reader at least I’d been buying something and reading it. When it came to music, the situation was far more grim: I hadn’t paid money for a new album since 1998, when I bought Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West.

MAYBE YOU’VE NEVER LIVED abroad but I think there’s a way in which our 20s—no matter where we are, be it Cincinnati, New York, Calcutta, or Kuala Lumpur— can have the same ghostly lack of reality. You float from apartment to apartment, city to city. There are responsibilities but there is also new freedom and fresh chaos. You have stuff, you lose stuff. Who you are is in flux. Things you’ve cared about, which felt so so important at one point—they fall away, replaced by newer, allegedly more mature/important concerns.

Your profile starts to firm up: You get a good job. Maybe marry. Buy a place. Acquire a pet. And/or a kid or two. Pretty soon you know a good Pinot Noir and own a really solid interview outfit. Do you read books? You probably still do. But unless you’re still closer to 20 than 30, I’m guessing it’s not all that likely you remember when you last bought an album or bobbed your head at a concert.

Once upon a time, I—like nearly all my friends, and probably you—cared very much about music. While attending a Miami high school I managed to average at least a concert a week. Along with some friends, I even wrote record reviews, photocopying and distributing them myself. Eventually we charged for advertising. When I attended college, I brought a set of giant speakers and proceeded to play music 24 hours a day for years on end. Part of wooing my wife, in fact, was making mixes and taking her to shows.

Concerts. Mix tapes. Caring really deeply about a song and how its lyrics maybe speak to you? The New Republic reported recently on a study that explores how kids and adults respond differently to music. Based on interviews with 9,000 subjects, we see not only that younger people tend to be more passionate about urgent, intense, and emotional music but that people’s listening and music-acquiring habits tend to fade as we grow older. We stop caring.

Unless we don’t. Unless you do what I did, which was to spend several weeks obsessively trying to decide what kind of stereo system to buy.

IT DOESN’T HURT THAT my grocery store has records. And for whatever nihilistic reason, I’ve spent the past year more of less making fun of it for this fact. Still, I go to this store at least once a week. I’m slightly embarrassed by how excited I am to browse the 100 or so albums displayed in the lifestyle section, beside fancy soaps, organic hoodies, and gender-neutral children’s toys. (It is L.A., after all.)

For our first year in Los Angeles, our house was usually filled with the sounds of public radio. In the car, we listened to books on tape with our daughter. Not much room for music. But this past fall, when we hosted our first small dinner party, I dusted off the old iPod, set it to random, and hoped whatever happened on our tinny portable speaker thing wasn’t that bad. Then NWA came on. And pretty soon Kool Keith. This was followed by some weird audio track from my wife’s reporting trip to Russia in probably 2004. I updated my iTunes and made some playlists. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to care about a random assemblage of digital music I’d stopped adding to or curating with any passion at least 10 years ago.

Christmas was approaching and my wife wanted to host her company’s after-party. We bought three Christmas trees, strung up lights and bought a large silver bucket for the booze. Maybe if this one went well, we’d want to host parties more often. I also had this inkling: We needed music.

It wasn’t just about the occasional party: We were also trying to be good role models. I wanted our daughter to have fun and enjoy the tunes, but also to understand that you had to pay for the good things in life, that artists needed support, that there was no such thing as a free dance party. With a real stereo, we could play physical records, and those big beautiful 12-inch albums, with art and liner notes, would be an excellent way to grow up together, to care as a family about music, to make this old part of us live again in a little girl’s body and mind. How much fun would it be to re-visit some of the albums that made us who we are?

THE UPS GUY USUALLY throws our packages over the fence. But I happened to be home the day of the great stereo system’s arrival. Like a kid at Christmas, I ripped open a set of Pioneer speakers, a basic Onkyo amplifier, and a ridiculously cheap Audio Technica turntable. Then I spent an entire day building shelves and hiding all the wiring.

When I first returned to the grocery store, this time as an owner of a turntable, I was practically vibrating with excitement. Bypassing the milk, coffee, and apples, I wheeled over to the stacks of records. Before any of the food, I had a big decision to make: What record should I buy? More than that, is this record for me, or is it for my daughter? It felt like a significant moment—the first album of our family’s new renaissance.

And what about you, reader? Are you a former war correspondent’s spouse? Probably not. Are you a dad? Perhaps. In any case, you’re a person. A human being with a certain amount of money, someone who can make decisions about how to spend that money. Perhaps there are even records at your grocery store? Whoever you are, you think this is more or less true: Digital music sucks. Spotify is not for parties. You don’t want to feel like you’re checking your email when you’re cuing up a really good song or helping your daughter to remember a lyric she thinks she loves.

Having been the owner of a turntable for nearly three weeks, I recommend that you take some of your time and instincts and resources to give yourself a reason to start acquiring music again. It doesn’t have to just be for the young.

This Friday, a little more than a year since we said goodbye to our old life and started this new one, we had about 100 people over to our tiny house. After midnight, we played Prince’s Purple Rain as loud as the system could handle. When the record finished, we put on a new one. My neck still hurts.


This piece was published by Pacific Standard. Read the original here.