When he caught me watching him, an unmanageable smirk playing on my face, he made his movements more furtive, exerting pressure on parts that did not move but trying to play it all off like, “Pfft whatever, I’m just absently fidgeting with this thing. I don’t even know why you’re looking at me.” When he caught me fumbling with my camera to try for a surreptitious video, he warned, “If you post this to Instagram, you’re going to need an insurance policy for your face.”
I’m not in the business of humiliating my children online in video form, so I’ll just use words. This was adorable. Compact discs, you might remember, used to be about as rare as Doritos. At one point, I probably owned a thousand of them, which I say with some pride even though a significant percentage were produced by Blues Traveler. I bought CDs when you had to purchase them inside actual malls, when they arrived in those pointless, tree-slaughtering longboxes, where you had to walk into a Camelot Music and part with $18 because you wanted a single track and the record companies were still in their pre-Napster unchecked-evil days.
I had CDs I didn’t even like, including two — TWO — by the Scorpions. I watched some kid in my study hall run a reasonably profitable stolen-CD bootleg ring out of his giant oversize coat. Compact discs were new, they were precious, they were currency, they allowed us to pitch shoe boxes full of ruined cassettes, they were everywhere. And now, just north of 20 years later, I watched a reasonably effective human being struggle to access the interior of one. I texted my cousin about this, and she replied that her daughter said she knows about CDs because “Grandma and Grandpa have a lot of them.” Sophie, if you’re reading this, YOU’RE NOT HELPING.
If I’m being honest, some part of me felt validated that this little big-shot, who scoffs every time I die in “Star Wars Battlefront” on the PlayStation (which I do with alarming consistency, even as Darth Vader), can’t quite get it together enough to crack a mass-produced plastic container from 1991. (Oh, are you laughing at me because I can’t build a Minecraft cruise ship? Here, try to break into this copy of “Use Your Illusion II,” fancy pants.)
But it’s funny, because though my son has apparently never seen a compact disc, he’s very into records. Record players, of course, were how people entertained themselves in the 1800s, back in the days of “gramophones” and “Tommy Dorsey” and “paying for music” and other stuff that people don’t pay attention to anymore. For years, I’d kept an oldish turntable and a few crates of vinyl stored in … well, I might as well admit it was in a damp and humid attic in South Carolina, because I plan badly. So, after a recent move, I got them all out, mopped off the condensation, removed the cockroach carcasses and showed the kids how we used to listen to our Al Jolson.
Now, I have a 4-year-old, and if there’s anything you don’t want within reach of a 4-year-old’s peanut butter-smeared hands, it’s a device that doesn’t work if you bump it. But my older son was fascinated by this relic from the past that played music from his present. And I don’t want to sound too much like the Everything-Was-Better-in-the-’40s guy, but he fell down the kind of single-artist, huge-art, one-band, non-playlist, non-shuffle rabbit hole that I inhabited when I was his age. He investigated the album art, paged through lyrics, got excited at sheets of collectible stickers. He lost his mind when we found a “Charlie Brown Christmas” made of translucent green vinyl. He cackled at the terrible music we all used to find appealingly dangerous. (“Meat Loaf?” he said one night, shaking his head in bemused disbelief. “Why don’t people make any sense?”)
It was heartening to watch, especially in a culture that affords him and his peers such snap-instant gratification. Not too long ago we had to wait for six hours to hear one song on a static-afflicted southern Indiana radio station; this kid will never know a world where he can’t hear a song he’s thinking of within five seconds. His group will deal less with formed, finished, completed things and more with chopped-up input arriving from all directions. And I may be drawing parallels that don’t exist, but I am hoping that these fleeting interactions will help teach him the patience and care involved with taking in one thing at a time, whether that’s a book, a story, an album or a CD. If he can ever open one.
You might also be interested in: