Needful Things

imageLast March, my writing this, or any article, from my desktop PC would have been no more remarkable than having my lungs process oxygen or my stomach digest the unspeakable contents of a Ball Park hot dog. But since then, I have performed the vast majority of my writing on my portable computer, luxuriating in the comfort of my favorite chair, reclined in cushiony goodness like an old dog nestled in a favorite pile of blankets. My laptop, which has become a virtual extension of my very self, has made such splendid decadence not just possible, but commonplace, and I have grown accustomed to its convenience.

Today, my laptop is receiving needed, and warrantee’d, service somewhere far away, and I find myself constantly distressed by its absence. I keep reaching for it, like automatically flipping the light switch even when the power is out, and I’ve noticed in its absence how much I have come to incorporate it into my everyday life. I don’t know precisely when my laptop stopped being a luxury and became a necessity, but like much of the technology that populates my home and office, I am lost when it is missing.

It was the great and wise Tom Keifer of Cinderella fame who once screeched through the vibrating knife-blades of his larynx, “You don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.” I know the cliche is far older than late-’80s glam rock, but every time I realize I’ve missed something more than I expected, it is Keifer and his abused-cat voice that echoes in my mind. Such is the influence of the music that infected my youth.

When I was 17, I drove a 1974 Buick Riviera – already 15 years old when it came into my possession – through the winding roads of southwestern Wisconsin. The soundtrack to my adolescence was 101.5 WIBA FM, which professed to be, at the time, Madison’s “home” for classic rock and roll.

I spent a lot of time with music in those days, expressed through whatever maximum sustainable volume I could accomplish with speakers that had seen too many winters and too many teenagers. The radio itself was factory installed and represented not even the latest technology of 1974, much less 1989. It lacked a cassette player, to say nothing of a CD player, the forefront of portable music technology at the time. I was at the whim of the radio’s station manager and his inscrutable playlist, waiting through REO Speedwagon or Tom Waits for the good stuff: Bad Company, The Steve Miller Band, Clapton, The Eagles and Journey.

Yeah, I was that kid.

Don Henley might never have put voice to “Already Gone” had he known what awful caterwauling accompaniment would be married to it some years later by a teenager on an empty winding road through America’s Dairyland, but a loved, or even vaguely liked song, rolling in on FM radio waves through the speakers and into my ears compelled me. There is nothing like the good fortune of a perfect song at the perfect time, a chorus of “Open Arms” right at the moment she kisses you for the first time, or “The Joker” as the first keg is tapped in some unknown field under the stars of a full summer night.

Now, I’m 33, and I summon music on demand from my iPod, choosing from a playlist of extraordinary length. I need not suffer the wasteland of unloved music between the songs I want to hear, much less commercials or the insufferable prattling of disc jockeys. I simply call up my music in the order of my fickle choice and enjoy. It’s clean, precise and clinical, a study in on-demand media and situational convenience. I am at no one’s mercy, never caught wondering why I have to be driving just as Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” fades to black and the DJ kicks off an extended Abba mix. Technology has improved my experience of listening to music.


I once dropped my iPod in the toilet. It did not work after that, and I’m not sure I would’ve wanted it to. The specifics of that incident are not relevant. What is important is that I had purchased a $400 replacement by the end of that day. I could not imagine suffering a world without my iPod and complete control over the audio content to which I would be subject. Music colors the world around me, and I’ve become very used to choosing the brush strokes to be applied. Even now, as I am writing this, my iTunes is set to a very specific playlist designed to encourage creativity without distracting me from the task at hand. Don’t ask me what qualities The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and Debussey’s “Claire De Lune” share in helping me write, but I need only know that they do.

It raises a question, though: Can I still write without the technology that supports my concentration? If I had to do this on a notepad under a tree, surrounded by the sounds of birds and wind, instead of on at a computer keyboard with the sounds of John Lennon and impressionist piano, could I? And, if I could, would I still want to? It’s hard enough to be at a desk instead of in my big-comfy-chair, and even as I write now, I wonder what it says about me.

Seventeen years ago, all I needed was a full tank of gas and whatever was playing on the radio. Now I am surrounded by the trappings of technology, running a small business that depends on computers, software, fax machines, telephones, CD and DVD burners, and printers; endless circuits working in harmony to produce what could otherwise be done with a pen, some paper and a stamp.

I enjoy technology. I am, after all, a gamer and there is no escaping the fact that you can’t play World of Warcraft on a tree stump, no matter how hard you try. I like that my entire library of music is accessible with a single mouse click and piped through to my ears in high-fidelity through my Bose headphones. To know these things and enjoy them is certainly no sin, but what troubles me is how quickly a thing I like becomes a thing I need.

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