“Hello Operator, can you give me number nine? Can I see you later?
Will you give me back my dime? Turn the oscillator, twist it with a dollar bill,
Mailman bring the paper, leave it on my window sill.”
-The White Stripes, Hello Operator
My husband likes Barry Manilow. I know. I married him anyways. Last Christmas my sister and her husband gave him a Barry Manilow album. No, they don’t have bad taste in music too, they were building on our annual Christmas gag gift tradition. This is a relatively new tradition, it started a few years ago when Joe (said husband) stuck a 2 pound weight in a gift bag and presented it to my Brother in Law. Joe had been teasing him relentlessly after my brother in law injured his shoulder doing a kettle bell workout with relatively light weights, guffawing “I didn’t know they even made kettle balls that small!” My niece shot back, “I didn’t know they still made sweaters with zippers”. She was referring to this awful burgundy sweater with a zipper from the chest to the top of the folded over collar. A sweater that Joe and been wearing every Christmas Day for years. We all howled with laughter and Joe nodded and admitted that she had out-done him in the smart ass banter that accompanies every family get together. The next Christmas there was a gift wrapped beautifully for Joe from my niece. Joe opened it to find a hideous Christmas sweater that had obviously been well worn. In another decade. It reeked of mothballs. He was caught by surprise but looked at my niece with a touch of admiration. He loved her and was proud, and to be a good sport he put it on right away. He retired the ugly zippered sweater after that year.
So, my sister was eager to have him open his album. She was watching with anticipation, waiting to pounce with glee when he would surely blush with embarrassment. Unfortunately my sister was to be sorely disappointed. He loved the album. He was touched that they thought of him. He slowly and gingerly turned the album over, looking from the front to the back cover. There was a look of nostalgia and wonderment on his face. My sister’s triumphant smile slowly melted into disappointment. This wasn’t the reaction she’d been expecting of course. As Joe looked over the album he exclaimed over different songs, singing some of the verses. I groaned. You can take the Utica out of the boy… well you know.
My stepdad, Tommy, excused himself quietly and left the room. I’m thinking that he’s sick that his daughter has married someone with such musical taste. I picture him in the next room shaking his head silently. I didn’t raise her like this…. My stepdad shaped my musical taste. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Hendrix… he is a walking rock and roll encyclopedia. He spends hours reading dense volumes of albums and their stats. You could name some obscure sixties album or B-side and he’d be able to tell you all about the artist, the record and what the monetary value would be if you ran across it at a flea market. I guess you could say he was like a walking Wikipedia page on the subject, but we are talking about vinyl here, so I’ll stick with the encyclopedia metaphor.
Tommy returns a few minutes later carrying a plastic box. He ignores our stares and questioning looks as he sets it down carefully on the kitchen table. We all sit patiently and wait to see what he has unearthed from the room we all refer to as “TommyLand”. We know better than to ask what it is, he will show us in his slow, methodical way with very little explanation. His lack of grandstanding actually comes off as quite dramatic somehow. He unlatches the metal clips on either side of the box and meticulously lifts the lid. It’s an old turn table. Joe immediately pulls the Barry Manilow album from it’s protective sleeve and hands it to Tommy. He is so excited to hear it and he feels validated that my stepdad is offering to play it. Tommy’s accommodation had nothing to do with Barry Manilow, it’s an opportunity to play with one of his “toys’ and to share it with all of us.
The record starts spinning and we hear a few crackles before the first strains of music emanate from the record player. After I tear my eyes away from the spectacle of my husband grooving to Barry Manilow, I turn my attention to my son and daughter and nephew (ages 12, 11 and 9). They are completely engrossed, mouths open, eyes wide in amazement. They are stupefied and can’t even form sentences to ask the questions… “What is… How does it…”
We all try to explain through our laughter how it works, that the needle follows the grooves on the vinyl and … some how plays the music? I don’t know, it’s not something we really questioned growing up. You just tried really hard to not scratch the album and to not jump or dance too close to the turntable and make it skip. I can’t believe my kids have never seen a record player before. Something that was so integral to my childhood and in the blink of a few decades it’s gone. I don’t know why I’m surprised. When my son was born I had just retired all my cassettes (bye bye awesome mixed tapes I labored over for endless hours.. sniff sniff) and transitioned to cd’s. Now cd’s are on their way to joining their brethren in the vast wasteland of bygone electronics. They will be in good company with the 8 track tapes, the VHS tapes, the rotary phone, the black and white t.v. with dials and rabbit ears, the transistor radios, the word processors…. I could go on but this list is starting to make me feel really old.
While I’m getting a kick out of watching their confusion and bewilderment, I’m kind of pissed. These spoiled little twerps growing up in the digital era have no idea how good they have it. They want a new song? Download it instantly. Listen to it on Spotify. Want a book? Order one for your Kindle and you have it within seconds. Want to watch a music video? Gone are the days of hoping to catch a glimpse of it on Mtv, you can go on YouTube and see it whenever you want. They don’t even have to deal with dial up internet access anymore. Mom forgets to pick you up from practice? Well just get your smart phone out you little monster and call her and see where she’s at! Forget the entitlement generation, now we are raising the instant gratification generation…
I tried to explain some of this to my son recently when I had him as a captive audience in the car. I explained that if I wanted a copy of my favorite song, I would have to try to record it off the radio station onto a cassette tape and hope the radio DJ wasn’t in a chatty mood while my song was playing. I tried to illicit some sympathy from him when I pointed out that I would sit in my room for an ENTIRE day, listening to my radio, just waiting for that one song to play. And inevitably it would come on the second you leave the room for an urgent bathroom break. This is my version of the “When I was your age I had to walk 2 miles in the snow to school” story. I got no sympathy from my boy. He looked at me like I was crazy, as in Why would you waste a whole day to do that?
He had no concept of having to wait. And let me just say, my kids are not spoiled. Well, no more spoiled than other kids of their generation. They don’t get everything they want, they aren’t the first to get the new hot thing. They have to wait/earn/save for some things they’ve really wanted. But what all this made me realize is that there are so many things that used to be really big deals, things you had to wait for, go to the store for, stand in line for. Now most of these things can be bought on line faster than you can say “Complete My Purchase”.
This almost makes me feel sorry for these kids. There’s something to be said for anticipation. The waiting, the build up makes things so much sweeter. I remember counting down the days until a record was released. Or waiting in line at record stores for concert tickets. Or spending hours in a book store looking through dozens of books trying to decide which one to get, because this purchase was precious. You didn’t get to go buy books every day so you wanted to make sure you go the right one. Don’t get me wrong, I love that we have such easy access to music and books and I love to get on YouTube and watch live performances of my favorite bands. I sometimes feel like I got the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory, so I’m not saying I don’t love the digital age and all it’s perks. I just wonder what it is our kids will have to hunger for, what will have them antsy with impatience, what will make them mark a date on the calendar with a red Sharpie and wish the days away?
There was another conversation I had with my son soon after. He asked me what I did for a living before he was born. I started to tell him that I sold pagers… and almost instantly wished that I had just made something up. Now I had to explain the concept of pagers and why someone would need such a device. You see, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, they called your pager and punched in their phone number, you would see the number on your pager and you would go find a phone or a phone booth and call them back. Again, I get the “You’re crazy” look. As I’m trying to explain this to him, I realize that it sounds so cumbersome and ridiculous. I try to make it sound a little better by pointing out that I sold them to corporate accounts, Fortune 500 companies. He didn’t care. I’d lost him already. He was too busy posing his next question to listen as I trailed off about the limited options we had before cell phones were widely available. He interrupted my reverie, “But Mom, what’s a phone booth?” Done. Can’t answer another question. I’m exhausted by all the explaining. I sighed with resignation, admitting defeat. I turned to him, “Google it.”