Just One Thing?

I'm supposedly listening to an album. The Cars' first album. Friends and I were talking about it last night and then I was going through my records and saw it there. It belongs to another guy who doesn't have his turntable any more but kept his albums. Turns out that The Cars' first album is good. It's from a whole range of music I discounted in my youth because I wanted to seem superior to pop. I'm a bit less foolish now.

But this isn't about The Cars, it's about listening to an album, the thing I'm supposedly doing. I listened to the first and a half but a book on my shelf — The Art Of Noticing by Rob Walker — caught my eye and I picked it up. I had read eight pages before I remembered listening to the album. The record was still spinning, music still played from the speakers, but was I listening?

I put the book down, intent on listening, but kept thinking how this was something I wanted to write. I booted the computer into the writing program and typed until the record ran out, then got up, flipped it, and wrote while the music played.

There are two old Zen things I have just wasted two songs trying in vain to find. The first, I'm pretty sure is a Zen saying, but the second is something else entirely.

The First: When drinking tea, one should only drink tea.

Focus on one thing. Be in the moment. Meditate on it. Really listen to The Cars first album instead of reading or writing. I've failed at this, but there's this second thing.

The Second: A monk watched his master drinking tea and reading the newspaper. Master, he asked, you said when drinking tea, one should only drink tea? The master paused, then said, when one is drinking tea, one should only drink tea. And when one drinks tea while reading the newspaper, one should do only those things. With that, the master went back to reading the paper, steam rising from his cup and disappearing mysteriously in the morning air.

I'm going back to listening to The Cars now.

Cool & Uncool

Do you have a steady boyfriend
Cause honey I've been watching you
I hear you're mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes, I like him too
He's an artist, a pioneer
We've got to have some music on the new frontier
—Donald Fagen, "New Frontier"

I've finished prepping dinner after bringing laundry upstairs for my wife to hang. On the speakers I'm playing the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia playing and there is nothing at all cool about any of this.

Back when I taught high school (all of four months ago), kids asked why I didn't wear a Gucci belt, Jordans, or whatever else they thought was cool. One kid said, "I don't know how you freaking stand being so uncool, man." (He didn't say "freaking" or "man," but the two words he used, while cool to those kids, are things I'm purging from my life).

I smiled. This was a pretty smart kid, the kind I liked and most of why I was still teaching. He smiled a little too, knowing I was about to try and teach him something. I said, "here's the best thing about getting old: you stop worrying about being cool." He nodded, then schooled me: "Yeah, you're old, but you were never cool, were you?" Touché.

I'm fifty-one and really like the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet: Desmond, Wright, Morello, and Brubeck improvising over whatever time signature no one else used. It's called cool jazz but not because the people still listening to it are cool. The cool folks are digging the newly unearthed Coltrane, the weirdly wondrous Ornette Coleman, neglected Jessica Williams, and every Miles Davis album except maybe Kind Of Blue. Look at my record collection and the largest section has Brubeck down each spine. So uncool.

That kid kind of understood. Most didn't, but he was cool in the ways that really matter. The ways I still want to be cool. He was a little bit open to things. He could be taught. He could learn. He could come to understand. He sure as hell wasn't going to listen to Brubeck and I bet wherever he is now, he's wearing a Gucci belt that isn't doing a damn thing to hold up his pants. He's cool that way too.

Me, I'm not even close. But I'm cool with that.

From a Columbia Records Sleeve circa 1961

This was inside the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Brandenburg Gate Revisited album:


1. THEY'RE YOUR BEST ENTERTAINMENT BUY. Records give you top quality for less money than any other recorded form. Every album is a show in itself. And once you've paid the price of admission, you can hear it over and over.

2. THEY ALLOW SELECTIVITY OF SONGS AND TRACKS. With records it's easy to pick out the songs you want to play, or to play again a particular song or side. All you have to do is lift the tone arm and place it where you want it. You can't do this as easily with anything but a phonograph record.

3. THEY'RE CONVENIENT AND EASY TO HANDLE. With the long-playing record you get what you want to hear, when you want to hear it. Everybody's familiar with records, too. And you can go anywhere with them because they're light and don't take up space.

4. THEY'RE ATTRACTIVE, INFORMATIVE AND EASY TO STORE. Record albums are never out of place. Because of the aesthetic appeal of the jacket design, they're beautifully at home in any living room or library. They've also got important information on the backs—about the artists, about the performances or about the program. And because they're flat and not bulky, you can store hundreds in a minimum of space and still see every title.

5. THEY'LL GIVE YOU HOURS OF CONTINUOUS AND UNINTERRUPTED LISTENING PLEASURE. Just stack them up on your automatic changer and relax.

6. THEY'RE THE PROVEN MEDIUM. Long-playing phonograph records look the same now as when they were introduced in 1948, but there's a world of difference. Countless refinements and developments have been made to perfect the long-playing record's technical excellence and insure the best in sound reproduction and quality.

7. IF IT'S IN RECORDED FORM, YOU KNOW IT'LL BE AVAILABLE ON RECORDS. Everything's on long-playing records these days…your favorite artists, shows, comedy, movie sound tracks, concerts, drama, documented history, educational material…you name it. This is not so with any other kind of recording.

8. THEY MAKE A GREAT GIFT because everybody you know loves music. And everyone owns a phonograph because it's the musical instrument everyone knows how to play. Records are a gift that says a lot to the person you're giving them to. And they keep on remembering.



Sustainable Listening

I take the album from its paper sleeve which I had pulled from the cardboard sleeve in which it rested. The vinyl is forty-seven years old. I set it on the platter, switch the turntable on, and brush it. The amp hums. I swing the tonearm over the record and lower the lever. (My fingers were never steady enough to lower the needle on their own and now I'm even less steady.) Crackles pop in the speakers, then Neil Young sings about packing it in, buying a pick-up, and taking it down to L.A.

Across the room I sit at an HP laptop reading work emails going back and forth between a couple of the directors. I signed onto the job thinking I'd just write grants, but it has turned into something more interesting because I want it that way and the people who hired me encourage such things. It's a sweet thing. About as sweet as Neil's voice out on the weekend.

My daughter is teaching me about sustainability. Because of her I've committed to never drinking out of a single-use water bottle again. Small steps.

Records are sustainable. I can feel it. The paper sleeve. The brushing. The crackles and pops. Sure, vinyl is pretty nasty petroleum stuff, but it's forty-seven years old and I'll keep it the rest of my days (having learned the mistake of ditching the albums from my childhood).

The job feels sustainable too. My old one was like sitting in a running car in a closed garage. I wrote a note this morning to an old colleagues. I keep wanting to break a window, open the door, something before he suffocates. That's how it was with me. And the effects of that linger. That place was poison to me. I'm only now just beginning to recover.

Over coffee I read Neil Young's Lonely Quest To Save Music and his idea that the compressed digital music is doing something bad to our brains, kind of like the mind-suck of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else feels necessary but disconnects us. That ain't sustainable either.

The record's almost over. Even that can't go on and on. But there's the other side and there's another record and another after that. Just the feel of the record, the act of putting it on, and the restorative sound flowing across the room, yeah, it's enough to sustain me. It all feels so good.