Material Cultures of a Dead Age

Guess what we did yesterday? WENT CD SHOPPING

Let me back up

On lazy days we like to tinker with our house. Moving furniture around, finally going to the hardware store for the right kind of screw to put up the cool light switch cover my mom sent us from Mexico, this sort of thing. The other day we started tinkering with our stereo area. I am sure I documented the long drawn out scenario in early 2015 by which we paid a lot of money for a beautiful handmade record shelf from that guy who lived in a barn out in the middle of the country fields and who then weeks later while waiting for him to finish our shelf I overheard at the coffee shop talking about the deep despair he was in because he had too many shelf orders and didn’t know how he was ever gonna fill them? So then I felt so bad and just never called him to check up on our shelf, even though we’d already paid him and weeks and weeks were going by. And then out of the blue one day he called me all mad like “your damn shelf is done, where the hell are you?” Anyway long story short: we got a great shelf.

So, the shelf, full of records, is in the living room, with the turntable atop it, and it’s great. But we have this other shelf that we acquired from a bookstore in Iowa and that we’ve been lugging around the country ever since; it was custom-built to be the exact size to hold those pocket paperbacks you can buy at used bookstores for a quarter, and it turns out this is the exact right size for CDs. Since moving here however the shelf has been in the basement along with all our CDs, two huge boxes full of them.

We are middle aged, so aspects of online/digital life that youngsters take for granted are starting to really bother us. I’ve been feeling alienated from my music listening practice for a long time; something about Spotify and even iTunes has always alienated me. I feel like I can never think of what I want to listen to, like I’ve just “forgotten” all the music that I like and don’t know how to think of it, and then there’s also a lot of surfing from song to song. I miss sitting down and listening to a whole album, and I also increasingly am realizing that I miss the way choices used to be somewhat circumscribed. You used to simply choose a CD from the ones available in your collection, and that was it. The endlessness of choice these days I find weirdly terrifying or like it just makes me not want to listen to anything, or just listen to the one playlist I managed to curate three years ago over and over again. Finally, I miss looking at liner notes while listening.

SO the old man finally got that shelf out of the basement and hung it on the wall by the record shelf, and we put my Sony discman from the early 00s next to the turntable and plugged it in with an eighth inch cable, and we unpacked our damn CDs. Those boxes of CDs are a real time capsule. It was very fun. Unpacking a time capsule of your life between, say, 1995 and 2001. So not just Automatic for the People and every They Might Be Giants album but also literally seventy million painstakingly crafted CDRs with beautiful handmade covers made by innumerable bands from the early 00s indie rock scenes, real indie rock not corporate indie rock, just weirdos in basements, both friends of ours and strangers. All my friends’ albums! Those wonderful covers I haven’t seen in years. And not to mention: TAPES. I have a tape archive that makes me weep: the tape Katy and I recorded in our dorm room freshman year of college, just them on guitar and me on banjo, each knowing perhaps four chords, and primarily the tape is just us shrieking with laughter. Tapes of live on-campus shows my various bands played. Katy’s early solo tapes. A tape of me playing a Mozart piano duet with this guy Jeremy. A tape I made with my college boyfriend before we were dating, that is mostly ironically sincere covers of Metallica and that one Live song. A tape of Steve and myself improvising our long-form masterpiece, “Captain Squid,” an epic ballad about a Gump-like character who has been present at every major event of human history, and also played bass on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. I also still have the tape of “Flood” that my cousin gave me in 7th grade that changed my life. “Where’s the cover for that?” “It’s NEVER had a cover.” “Rad!” ALSO, the mix tapes that Gary and I mailed to one another before we were even dating, when we were doing that thing where you are obviously obsessed with each other but pretending you’re just doing normal friend stuff. These mix tapes have TALKING ON THEM. Like, our recorded voices, messages in between songs to one another. I could never listen to mine again but it is fun to look at the label and remember how I slaved over it. And finally, we also have a really legit archive of classical music, much of it bestowed on me by Freddy when she decided to clean house and get rid of most of her own CDs. Classical music is weirdly ideal in CD format, in my opinion. Somehow I never listen to it on vinyl and certainly not off a damn computer. CDs just also SOUND really good; you forget! Listening to stuff on CD that was recorded and mastered with the intention of being heard on CD feels great.

So we put all the CDs out on the shelf and immediately put on Emperor Tomato Ketchup and marveled over how good it sounded. Then today we went CD shopping. There is a store here that I believe was lifted up in 1999 and dropped down in the present completely unchanged. It is a straight-up grimy used CD store. They do not sell anything new; it’s all used, and it’s all CDs and a little vinyl and a couple weird tapes all jumbled together. And all the CDs are organized in bins with those good plastic labels various clerks have designed collages for or like written the band name on in sharpie using the band font. We decided we would go through the entire store and buy all the CDs we’d had in high school and college that we could imagine wanting to listen to again. So for example, yes to Weezer’s blue album or the Indigo Girls; no to Soul Coughing or Spin Doctors or Garth Brooks or the fucking Bare Naked Ladies or whatever (kids these days who fetishize the 90s do not know how much shit we had to wade through to get to the few gems). We also allowed ourselves a few purchases of stuff we weren’t cool enough at the time to have but that we wish we had been (My Bloody Valentine, Mercury Rev). We bought like 15 CDs and then drove home blasting Joshua Tree and guess what? It sounded FUCKING HUGE

Then we came home and listened to Aerial by Kate Bush, from 2005. Later period Kate Bush, post-motherhood Kate Bush, Kate Bush recording in her damn barn in bucolic England with her husband on guitar and her small British child doing some spoken word work. I can not recommend this album highly enough. It’s two discs, and the entire second disc is one long composition linked together by field recordings of birdsongs, that then morph into Bush imitating the bird songs and turning them into speech or turning them into the rhythm track for a song. We lay on the couch for two hours and listened to the whole thing and then went to sleep.


I also got a box set of all the Shostakovich string quartets, which I certainly did not have in the Actual 90s but which I feel great about. Those quartets are devastating.

I’m reading a book about disgust and shame, and I’m trying to finish these two article revisions, and I’m mostly just sitting around biting my nails about my book, and drinking too much coffee and red wine, and procrastinating grading my seminar papers, and just generally it’s normal stuff around here. Feeling my age lately; new wrinkles appearing on my face on a daily basis and those stubborn five pounds you gain in middle age that you can’t lose without becoming one of those psychopaths who exercises for hours every day which I swear will never be me even as I hold a sort of grudging respect for those people, one of whom is my mother. And the gray hair!! I’m kind of digging it—it’s not every day you undergo normal human life span transformation that you can see in the mirror and take note of because it’s happening so fast. I got a haircut the other day and he was kind of peering down at me and I could tell what he’s thinking (he identifies as primarily a color guy) and I said “I’m going gray” and he yelled “I WASN’T GONNA SAY IT”

Gary says it’s interesting that you spend basically half your life dying, like it starts right when you turn forty and then you just slowly die for years until whenever you actually die. I said I prefer not to think of it that way. Like I can really see why there are all these women who are like “menopause is the best time in my life,” embracing these changes and what-not. There’s kind of a sloughing away of bullshit, I think, if you give in to it. Like, here you go, world, here is a middle aged lady with all that that entails, and I know what I like and I know what I want to do and I mostly just enjoy lying around the house listening to Kate Bush albums with my husband. Owning your changing body and not feeling despair about it is hard, I think, but it’s also a great lesson in inevitability. What are you gonna do about it? You can’t do ANYTHING about it. So why bother despairing? And this in turn perhaps does help you accept death, maybe a little bit, but it’s not the same thing as being like “I’m starting to die now.” Really we are all dying, always and all the time. Your brand new baby is already dying. “Existentialist Firefighter Delays Four Deaths”

Gary and I have been together for fifteen years!! What on earth. Unpacking the CDs really hit home what a long span of time that is. There are CDs in that box that feel like I acquired them in a wholly different era, like I almost can’t even remember the person I was when I got that CD. But then in the memory of getting that CD, my old man is also there, like we were already together. “Oh remember this show? That was where we met that guy who had the shitty old 1980s limousine and just drove it around as his normal car” (←one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and even cooler was that the guy acted like he didn’t know what was special or funny about this. “What? Yeah this is my car, so?”)

I also got Metallica’s black album, which I did indeed have on CD at the actual time and which I really will listen to. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s a good album. We also got Megadeth’s first album on vinyl, which is a total banger, and again, I don’t care that Dave Mustaine is a piece of shit. My money’s not going to him anyway: the power of BUYING USED

Our nice old man neighbor died last year and this young couple bought his house and I don’t know what they do for work but one of them is an absolute go-getter, every single day I look out the window and he’s digging a hole or installing a drainage system or planting fruit trees; one day I looked out and realized he was just casually removing the porch steps and moving them to the other side of the porch, like no big deal. My personal husband is a Virgo and has to think carefully about a project for 4-19 months before actually embarking on it, and he’s feeling very shamed by this spectacle of go-getting. Yesterday I said “Oh look, Matt planted a bunch of switchgrass on top of the knotweed,” and Gary’s face fell and he was like “classic Matt” and I was like “what?” and he said “I told him yesterday that I was thinking of doing that; now he’s immediately gone and done it.” Virgo envies other star signs their ability to simply dive into stuff without exhaustively researching it first; at the same time, once Virgo actually does do a job he usually does it to the max and perfectly, witness my office shelves which he promised to build for a year and then finally built with absolutely perfect excellence, stopping short of nothing to make them exactly to my specifications, including going back to the hardware store not once but THREE TIMES to get the exact right materials and tools, including something called a “stud finder.” If this task had been put within my purview I would have done it right away, but so poorly that within a few months all the books would have slid to the floor or the entire wall of the house would shatter and fall out into the yard. So it’s a real give and take in this marriage, it depends on what you need in any given scenario: some stuff does need to get done right away and it doesn’t matter that much how well it gets done, and into this type of chore steps me, a shining Leo, full of chutzpah and lacking attention to detail and wanting a lot of congratulations for doing something shoddily but with guts; some stuff rewards research and measuring and watching eleven how-to videos on Youtube, and it is here that Virgo really shines, and Leo has to leave the house while he’s working because his meticulous attention to detail takes thousands of hours and stresses her out. It’s just like Jack Sprat and his wife! Between the two of us, we lick the platter clean. Gross

I planted a little garden plot and it’s popping off. Trying to grow peas for the first time. I built a truly shoddy pea trellis (see previous paragraph), it looks like absolute shit but I think it will work okay. I planted kale, brussel sprouts, some herbs, basil, peas, bok choy, and lettuce. Also two cherry tomatoes which are called “Matt’s Wild” and which were heavily advertised as resisting blight. It’s hard to grow tomatoes in New England because of the blight, which lives in the air and the soil and which you can’t get rid of. Everyone just rushes to grow as many tomatoes as they can before the blight decimates everything and you have to plow it all under. We’ll see if Matt’s Wild fulfills their promise. I’d say the odds aren’t great. I also canned a bunch of pickled asparagus and am feeling smug about it.


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2 Responses to Material Cultures of a Dead Age

  1. Eileen says:

    Re cds, all of ours are in my office closet and they do indeed include My Bloody Valentine, because of course. I was in my local junior league thrift shop (what even?? but it exists) yesterday and there were just shelves of cds including Sixteen Stone and at least one Tom Waits album. So, you know, if you’re looking for more cds: thrift stores. Also our quarterly library book sale ALWAYS has vast amounts of cds that were clearly people’s massive collections that they’ve decided no longer spark joy or whatever it the age of digital etc.

    I have decided to love and appreciate it! I heart my actual grey streak happening now on the right side of the crown of my head. I’ve been saying for awhile that the order I get the more I am this one Kate Beaton comic with the that terrible velocipedienne : AND IT IS FANTASTIC. Stay in and don’t go and do what you want and who gives a fuck? I mean, yes, the crumbling body, but that’s really the only downside. I love it. :D :D :D

  2. Katie says:

    To be fair some of us Virgos dive right in. It must be my rising sign or some shit, but my pea trellis situ always looks terrible and hacked together. Gary is a true gem of a Virgo.

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