by Hugh Gilmore
Most modern Americans are afraid the universe will crash in on them if they are left alone with their own thoughts and feelings. To protect themselves, they wear headphones connected to iPods, iPads or iPhones. These are kinds of religious amulets that chant sounds into their heads. This protects them from hearing the sad silence of the void. Or so they fear, anyway.
I started noticing their affliction in 2005, when I went to a house sale where a deceased disc jockey’s estate was being sold by his sons. I got there early and was pleasantly surprised to find a room whose walls were covered with racks of music CDs.
Lots of folk, classical and blues music were among the man’s collection. In fact, there were several hundred blues recordings, many of them rare. I love blues music. I noticed many of the “Bigs” (Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Williams, etc.) and the “Blinds” (Blind Willie Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and so on). And much Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and Lightning Hopkins, and lots of field recordings made in country church basements.
“How much?” I asked.
“Buck apiece,” said the older son.
There were 283 of them. What the heck. “Okay,” I said.
But a year passed without my listening to the blues CDs. I couldn’t find the time to sit back and listen. Much of what I do in a typical day requires quiet so I can concentrate.
My friends said, “You should get one of those iPods. You can put all your CDs on one of them and still have room for more.” (iPods were new to my generation then.)
Sounds good, I said, “But when could I listen to this iPod?”
“You’re always taking long walks. You could listen then. That would be perfect.”
So, in the spring of 2006, I drove out Route 309 to CompUSA (remember them?) and bought a sleek, black, smaller-than-a-cigarette pack, Apple iPod Nano G4. Capable of holding several thousand songs, it was a gorgeous little machine. When I came home from the computer store I put the new iPod on my desk and went out to celebrate by taking a nice long walk before learning how to use the device.
Whenever I get out in the open air and feel a breeze against my cheeks, I look up to the sky and take a minute to remember people I’ve cared about who aren’t around any more. I picture them and tap my heart lightly and say their names. And then I conclude my ritual by remembering the philosopher/poet, Loren Eiseley, buried beside his wife, whose gravestone says, “We loved the earth, but could not stay.”
It probably sounds a little morbid to some people, but it makes me feel good to know that no matter what kind of problems I’m up against, I’m lucky to be alive. I should enjoy what’s here, right now, as I walk.
That part’s very satisfying to me, but what about the music I bought that morning? Well, in fact, I still haven’t opened the iPod package yet. I feel that, if I put on headphones and pick a song and push Play, I’ll be inviting someone to invade my head. I don’t think that would help me enjoy my walk.
Folks say, “Lookee here, we’re just talking about playing a song here.”
But “just” doesn’t pertain here for me. A song is someone else’s thoughts, philosophy, opinion, rant, or complaint. That’s too intrusive for me, at least when I’m looking forward to letting my own ideas ferment. And I like hearing my own footsteps. And the sounds of birds. And an occasional plane that streams across the sky making me imagine all those separate destinies onboard and wonder what awaits them when they land. And sometimes when I walk at the track of a local school I like seeing the children playing during recess because it always reminds me of my own youth – something I still wonder about, but will never understand.
If I wore headphones while walking, it would be like what happens when you go to lunch with a friend at a loud restaurant and have to lean forward and strain to hear. Too much going on acoustically.
“But you’re missing out on all that good music,” folks say.
Life is about choice I reply – maybe I’ll get to hear those blues CDs some day soon, but right now I’m still so busy listening to the world I can’t seal myself off from it.
It’s been 10 years now since I bought my iPod. It’s still in the box. Every year I celebrate the anniversary of its purchase by taking another long walk without it.
Hugh Gilmore is the author, among other things, of the recently published memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available most easily on Amazon.com in both paper and ebook formats.