Thursday, February 01, 2007


Sometimes I find myself drawn to complete strangers, if for no other reason than their apparent appreciation for music.

Take, for example, this guy I sometimes see at the gym: he treats the elliptical machine like his own personal Dance, Dance Revolution game. He'll stop the motion mid-stride; reverse it; move half forward, and then go back again... all to the beat of whatever he's listening to. Sometimes he bellows out loud; others, he'll free one or both hands from the bars to snap his fingers or thrust his arms to the side.

Last night, he was so into his music that he could scarcely board the elliptical to begin. From my own treadmill across the room, I caught a glimpse of someone standing on the floor, grabbing one bar of an elliptical with one hand, and balancing himself to dance with the other. It was, as I immediately suspected, this particular member.

I couldn't help but smile.

I'm the same way when I see someone singing or dancing on the train. Sure, for a split second I join the crowd by questioning their sanity. But I otherwise find their impromptu performance to be oddly compelling.

And then there's the guy I sometimes pass on my morning commute. I'm heading one direction in my car, whereas he's always making a long walk to the train in the opposite direction. He stands out to me, first, because our schedules are fairly in sync. And second, because he always has oversized headphones strapped to his head (the kind with their own antennae and FM dial). He's always chomping on gum as he walks along; always wearing pleated pants (usually tan); and always so engrossed in whatever blasts from his headphones (whether it's music or NPR or what, I haven't the slightest idea) that I imagine his walk — though actually quite long — occurs in a veritable blink.

Strange as this may sound, I realized recently that my days go better when I see him in the morning.

The guy at the gym reminded me of Jay Z when I first saw him. And the morning commuter reminds me of Dustin Hoffman (a la Rainman). In fact, if some poor, directionless soul should ever endeavor to make a movie about my life (I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek, of course), I'd like for Jay Z and Hoffman to both have cameos.

[I'd also like to create the lineup for the soundtrack, which I've been compiling over the years].

Speaking of which: it occurred to me tonight as I walked away from the elliptical and into the locker room that I'd spent the entire ride a million miles away from the gym. I have vague recollections of hitting "repeat" countless times on several songs but, otherwise, I can scarcely recall being there.

And let me tell you: there's nothing quite like walking away in a trance, so engrossed in music — completely unable to hear anything but a melancholy tune (see: REM's "Country Feedback") — to make you feel a million miles away from where you are (and yet: so close!).

Walking through rows of strangers: some of them lifting, some crunching. Some running, others stretching.

Watching them all at once, but still... listening... to that sad song in your ears. Desperate to comprehend everything; disheartened to realize you can't quite grab on to single thought.

So you listen harder. Take in the words. And weave your shaking legs through the crowd, as if teaching them to walk again.


Academic Advisor said...

I often feel sad and angry living in the iPod age when people seem increasingly incapable of spending one moment without music...or a cell phone conversation, or a video game, etc. It's almost not a matter of choice anymore, or rather, the choice has been reduced to which form the noise will take. People don't know how to function without some stimulus blocking out the world and/or their own thoughts. I wonder, has the world become so terrible that we can't face it without background music? Or we don't know how to relate to it? Are our lives so vacuous that we must fill them with sound to hide in?

But, once again, you have offered me a different way to see it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think AcAd has part of it but not all of it. It isn't that our lives are necessarily to terrible without music in them but they are better with music in them. When you are listening to the right music, even some boring task can be easier to deal with. I know when I am coding it is easier to get into the zone when I am listening to music. Often I don't even really hear what I am listening ton. On the other hand, I think a lot of people use their iPods as a buffer between them and the world around them. They are trying to keep everyone out. Funny how most people feel like they are alone.

I always sort of envy those free spirits that can just do their own thing in public. (As long as they aren't getting in anyone's way while they are doing it. :-P)

XOXO said...

I borrowed my coworker's iPod the other day so I could drown out the guy in the office beside me. That's right, I'm not forced to sit in a cube. I have a door, and so does he. Apparently he doesn't prefer his door shut, and he enjoys nearly yelling on his various phones. He kind of sounds like Johnny Carson, only he isn't remotely funny. When I had the head phones on I really did feel I had the excuse not to talk to anyone. With my distractability, it was great to guide my focus.

Academic Advisor said...

I hear you, BPP, but I'm not sure I accept the idea that life is better with background music. Those moments when one is occupied in a routine or boring task can be opportunities.

For example, I often enjoy working in my garden. It's true that I derive much of the satisfaction from the joy of making things beautiful. It is such a simple little thing, but it requires work. One has to observe the soil quality, water, and light of the landscape; consider the requirements of certain plants; plan where things should go and why; and then put them in the earth and see what happens. It seldom goes the way I envisioned, but that's part of the fun, right. Many people think growing things is too hard, but the work is a big part of the pleasure to a gardener.

However there is another aspect to gardening. As I shovel dirt or move rock, there is a lot of time to think. I use these moments to contemplate a book I am reading, plot the outline of a paper I'm writing, remember previous gardens I have worked in, lay out dream gardens I'd like to work in, ruminate on the nature of The Garden or The Garden of Eden, and sometimes I think about things that have nothing to do with any of this. I find similar opportunities while I walk or ride my bike to work each day or tidy up the house. My point is, I would lose these moments of reflection during boring tasks if I simply plugged into a piece of music.

You might reply that you reflect while the music is playing, often not even hearing it. To which I respond, then why have it? I ask you, is it really so horrible to be a bit bored? Is life better without boredom, or just busier?

Still, I take your point, and Thirdworst's. Perhaps music can enhance thought sometimes. I'll let my mind play over it while I work in my garden this afternoon.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

AA - Music often helps me block out the world precisely so I can become more attune to my own thoughts (the words of the song feed my thoughts, and vice versa). Other times, I swear I'm taking it all in at once: my environment and the people in it; the words to the song; the events of the day; etc. During these times, music doesn't just enhance my thoughts... it brings new meaning to otherwise ordinary objects.

But then, at other times, I can't think clearly with music on. It's all a matter of the song — and the situation — for me. I can't imagine gardening while listening to music, for example. That activity is an experience entire of itself.

But when jogging, or vegging, or contemplating... the right song can truly help amplify an experience (or a thought). Hence my obsession with the "repeat" button when a particular song comes on.

Though I understand what you mean too. I'm often irritated to find some people so entranced by their noise, they're not just unaware of the world around them... but also inconsiderate of others. Like people who run into you in the hallway while they're talking on their cellphone, or neighbors who don't care that their bass is amplified through wooden floor boards.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

BPP - That's what I think when I see the people I mention here... I envy the way they give themselves in to the music, without necessarily worrying about what others might think.

So long as they're considerate about it... I don't mind in the least. Quite the contrary.

Anonymous said...

It is all a matter of perspective. (Yes, that is my favorite saying. :)) Boring tasks are perfect for letting your mind ruminate. I let my hands get on with the task at hand and let my mind do its thing. Sometimes, though, I have to use the music as a filter to block out the world, like Third Worst says.

I also think it has to do with one's boredom threshold. And I have to admit there are times when mine is fairly low. And sometimes you don't want your mind to ruminate because it is stuck on repeat on some idea you don't want it working on. It is nice to have music to change a mood or change what you are thinking about.

Third Worst: It is when they become inconsiderate that I stop being amused. I have had to answer the phone while on the bus a few times this week because it was recruiters and I always get off as soon as possible. I also don't get people who have their headphones on loud enough that _I_ can hear their music.

Sounds like you need new neighbors. :) (Sorry, it was there.)