One of These Days, I’m Gonna Get Myself Organizized

Discovering new music is less rewarding than it used to be. Some middle-aged people like me seem to enjoy complaining that new music is not good. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the opposite problem. There is so much of it—an endless fountain of ideas and sounds. Much of it is innovative, inspiring, and just plain cool. So why am I not playing it on repeat like the tapes I bought in high school with my lunch money, many of which I was not even sure that I completely liked? And why do I keep listening to WFMU in hopes of finding a new band to love, chasing down other people’s recommendations, gazing at the Musicophilia website, borrowing and buying stacks of cds, begging for mix cds and then giving them short airplay?

Photo of three 100-cassette racks

Growing up, my bedroom slowly accumulated these racks, in which I neatly alphabetized my tapes. My listening choices were all just here.

I read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals about 19 weeks ago. The average person lives for four thousand weeks, Oliver Burkeman explains. And here is where your boundless passions can get you into trouble. It is your dim anxiety about finitude that keeps you racing around, as the tally of weeks clicks along. Maybe you are feverishly collecting obscure music references, maybe becoming the preeminent scholar in some arcana, whatever your bag is. “…it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do,” Burkeman says. If I listen to one of my favorite albums from 30 years ago, I will not be listening to one of my favorite albums- or artists- or songs- from one year ago. I will not be creating an even newer, better, more inspiring favorite. Enter my over-reliance on the shuffle feature on my smartphone; it cycles through thousands of albums and sends up one song at a time, allowing me to avoid a decision.  According to Burkeman, it’s “existential overwhelm.” He says I should discover “the joy of missing out.”

And I have!

I find some peace in admitting to myself when quiet sounds sweetest, when the most comforting thought is “You are here*,” as Adam J. Kurtz says, “*for now.” In the most peaceful moments, the privilege to exist is a great reward. At lunch, I stare out the window with a bowl of food, the moments, and my thoughts instead of grabbing a book or switching on the news. I love the bookends of each day, when I awaken in the morning and take the dog out as the sun comes up and when I lie still at night with the day’s expectations behind me.

But there is another antagonist here, and it’s not just mortality- it’s distraction. Yuck, this one might be the worst. Every few weeks I see my children’s usage of their various electronic devices and consider a new set of rules about screen time. Burkeman reminds us of what we already know but seldom practice: “What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is…At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.” When you let distractions like Twitter or Instagram commandeer your time, you are “paying with your life.”

And I am indeed distracted. I use the “like”s on Twitter to index playlists or radio stations or albums or tours or books or artwork or ideas that I want to spend more time on. And then I am often distracted by finding more. Neither the deep engagement with these resources nor the experiencing life part happens. And on it goes. To make time for what matters, I need to give things up.

Small stacks of cds atop a microwave

Some of my most pleasurable listening happens while cooking. A few CDs take residency here and tend not to leave. Hence, repeated listens. On these stacks, there is the Yard Act CD I’ve listened to nonstop since seeing them at the Black Cat, a Christmas CD I still have not put away, my friend’s band Glue Factory that I’ve been digging, the Kurt Vile cd that does not get old to me, and some Sunny Day Real Estate cds I dug out when I was contemplating whether or not to go see them play.

Burkeman even suggests that there is something wrong with planning! The nerve! I love to plan. What dreamer doesn’t? Sober up, because Burkeman writes, “Really, no matter how far ahead you plan, you never get to relax in the certainty that everything’s going to go the way you’d like…it’s important to see that this underlying longing to turn the future into something dependable isn’t confined to compulsive planners.” Burkeman believes that a desire to plan is rooted in worry, and that worry is “the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine.” Not ultimately beneficial.

Joe Strummer said the future is unwritten and Oliver Burkeman said that “You can never be truly certain about the future.” Do you see the difference? If you embrace the latter, you can let yourself off the hook. Relax. Enjoy the unpredictable. Don’t worry so damned much about writing your future. Just do what you do little by little.

Future is Unwritten movie poster

You Can Never Be Truly Certain About the Future: Let that Free You

What does all this have to do with mix tapes? It’s the time and attention. In present day language, it’s the mindfulness of the mix tape.

You could never plan the tape out perfectly, and it didn’t matter- it was to be expected. The mix tape maker may have been prone to change her mind about a song and go back and start a section of the tape again. If a song getting cut off at the end of side A did not feel right, she was liable to search for a shorter song and try again. No big deal. It was part of the process.

Mix tape playlist with Short Sleep by Love as Laughter as last song

I had a go-to last song for mix tapes during a certain era – Short Sleep by Love as Laughter. Easy to fit! Great outro!

Generally, mix tape making required patience. It required that you miss out on other weekend goings-on in favor of hanging by yourself. Mix tapes required days to make. They required dedication. You focused on the perfect time to press the buttons – only timing mattered in those moments. And musical ideas. Yes, you were awash in your insignificance as you felt around in the wide infinity of musical expression.

Meanwhile, you were hopeful that the tape would be liked or maybe even just noticed among the recipient’s other listening choices. Mix tapes did not guarantee a friend, a partner, a date, or a fuck. They were a way to say hello, I care about you. They were unselfish. Unless you were one of those assholes who quizzed your friend on how closely she listened to the tape, they were a pure gift.

And the tapes cut you off! At 60 minutes or 90 minutes. Or were you a 120-minute tape user? No matter. You are getting cut. Embrace your finitude.

Blank J card for 60 minute tape

60 minutes only. Limits.

I do not honestly know if I have the temperament any longer for mix tape making. I’d blame it on a lack of time, but that is bullshit. (See above.) It’s the choices I make for my time. For now, I’ll settle on choosing one album and playing it over and over until I hear the next song start in my head before it truly starts. Or I’ll choose an old favorite and sit with it like I used to. Baby steps.


I hope you are going deep and slow with all you love. Thank you for choosing to spend this time with me.


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