A few years ago my family and I were on a summer vacation in Rhode Island. It was raining one morning, a morning that I had to drive to my brother’s house a few miles away. The car I was operating was a rental, probably a 2010 model, with very few miles on it. Renting a car is a little like staying in a hotel; you get to try out something for a short period of time without ever feeling any pressure to buy. Usually, however nice the hotel or car, I’m reminded of what I like about the home or car I already have. Usually.
On this particular day, the rain was coming down in sheets. Thunder rippled through the grey and lightning flashed out over the ocean as I crossed the bridge from the island to the mainland, loud and dark the trip that would’ve been exacerbated by the effects on the car, itself, if there were any. There were not. Where were the effects?
Growing up I had become accustomed to what it meant to get caught in the car in a thunderstorm. In the old family vehicle, the windows would fog up and the defrost (we had no air conditioner) would seem to make things worse, and inevitably, either the heat would have to go on or the window would have to be rolled down (or both) just to clear the windshield enough to see. Rain spitting on you or forced hot air drenching you in sweat on an otherwise 85-degree day seemed like a choice with no winner.
And the radio? Turning the knob to find a station clear enough to discern music was a chore, but even when one was discovered and actually was playing a song I wanted to hear, it was rudely and routinely interrupted by the crackle of the overriding lighting dancing through the airwaves like a ghost in the machine, to mix a metaphor.
The experience was memorable and certainly far from painful, but made traveling anywhere in the summer rain that much more undesirable. While snow posed much more hazardous conditions outside, internally it was a pleasure cruise by comparison.
Yet, it wasn’t until I was in this rental car, with its air conditioning, satellite radio, and power windows that it occurred to me that I hadn’t been caught in a car in the rain in the summer in Rhode Island in 20 years. It wasn’t anything like I remembered. The windshield was clear. The interior set to a temperature-controlled comfortable. The radio, tuned to a classic rock station of my choosing, played with the clarity of my home stereo. It was so much without incident that I noticed how much it was without incident. I almost wished the drive was longer or the rain was heavier, just to see if it would last.
It was at this moment that I realized my daughter, five at the time, likely would never know a world I knew. That it was true; I could tell stories of things like unyieldingly foggy windows, and crackling radio, and the heater on in the summertime, and between laughs, she might not even believe me. Technology had passed me by and had eliminated what was memorable about a ride in the car on a day like today. Now it was pretty much like any other day.
Maybe it’s a stretch to equate this with my Ipod but I’m going to try anyway. Like a lot of people, my Ipod is filled with songs that I like. In fact, when programming it, I cherry-picked my favorites from every CD I own so that all 1,500 tunes are the top 1,500. One after another. Favorite after favorite.
Clearly a contradiction in terms, as there can be only one favorite, by definition. Conceding that point, whatever is playing at the moment is my favorite, with 1,499 others a close second. Not a dud in the bunch. To amplify the feeling of surprise, I utilize the ‘shuffle’ feature that randomly chooses the next song for me creating, in essence, the greatest, commercial-and-dee-jay-free radio station on the planet.
So, why am I not happier?
Please don’t misunderstand. The ability to program the soundtrack to my life with 100%, A+ material sounded like the best thing for the music lover that I am, and it is.
It just isn’t as great as I thought. Sometimes I wonder if I should pepper my Ipod with some songs that I don’t really enjoy at all. I think, and this is very difficult to explain, let alone admit, but I think I miss the…,
I can’t do it.
I can’t say I miss the foggy windows or crackling radio, and I can’t say I miss the songs that I don’t like, wouldn’t buy, and would, if I could, always avoid.
Everything is easier now than it was then, and everything is better, because easier is better. If something is easy to do, it is always better than something hard to do. Perfectly logical, right?
Making music is not easy. Playing an instrument is not easy. So much of our lives isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be.
What I really have decided is that variety is not the spice of life. Contrast is. The difficult things in life need to be just as much a part as the easy things.
If everything is easy, can anything be appreciated for how really great it is?
How much of an accomplishment is it?
How special can a song make you feel unless so many of the others don’t?
It just seems that whenever someone devises a way to make life easier, someone else is right behind them, trying to make it even easier than that.
So maybe the scratchy vinyl records and static-ridden radio, hard-to-tune acoustic guitar, and parents’ old AMC Hornet of my childhood made life seem more difficult to enjoy than MP3s, Guitar Hero, and any car on the road today do for the children of this century, but only having seen and heard the difference can I appreciate then and now.
I wonder if all we do with our lives these days is eliminate what we don’t like or someone deems difficult, eliminate what we think we don’t need to experience, if all we do is play favorites, then what possible technology will need to come along and replace the current model to remind my daughter when she’s an adult of the good old days.
Recommended listening: Paul Weller- Time Passes
Larson Sutton, 38,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel