An ordinary evening of unexpected sequence

If I choose any evening, any ordinary evening, I will find that an unexpected sequence has led to an unexpected result.

This evening began with long underwear.

My son, who attends college in Minnesota, called and said that he was freezing. Could I send him some long underwear, please? I had suggested thermal-lined everything when he was packing in September but he only scoffed. Two days back from Christmas break, with wind chill factors in the double digits below zero, he was reconsidering. My son is a small, wiry person and after browsing on the internet, clicking site after site of extra-large choices, I determined that the only people who purchase long underwear are Paul Bunyan-sized lumberjacks. I decided to shop around my town.

I picked up my other son after work so that he could come shopping with me. Usually he refuses, but that night snow was falling heavily, piling up. There was a bit of adventure in the chore. We started driving in one direction but the roads were so bad we turned around to find a closer store. Soon we lost interest in the underwear completely and stopped at a nearby bookstore instead. I looked at books; my son paged through music CDs for “Only $6.99.” He held up three CDs: Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie and a collection of Madonna’s greatest hits from the 1980’s. “What should I buy?” he asked. I said, “definitely Madonna.” We debated. I did not understand why he wanted to buy hard copies in the age of iTunes. He pointed to the sale sign, cheaper than iTunes. We discussed the merits of buying current, potential classics versus established classics. He decided to buy the Madonna.

Playing his new CD  in the car, we inched home in what was now a blizzard. My son was surprised that I knew every word to the song “Holiday.” I explained that when the album first came out, I was working in a record store. Every Monday we received a box of demo records from the record companies. The companies knew we would open popular bands like Van Halen as soon as the regular stock arrived, so the demos tended to be unknown artists that we would be less inclined to play. I vividly remember sliding Madonna out of the box, seeing for the first time the black and white close-up of her face and then her three paneled, fold-out body stretched across the inside cover, soft tummy above the “boy toy” belt buckle. We played it immediately, light, bouncy, compelling. I tried to describe what I remembered of her videos to my son. And what the videos meant to us back then. I told him how we would sit for hours glued to MTV. He asked if I bought the album. No, and the employees fought over who would keep the demo, but I had others.

After we got home, before taking off our coats, we burrowed through the snow to the garage. I rummaged in old boxes and began pulling out vinyl versions of Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Thompson Twins, Til’ Tuesday, Tiggi Clay, The Eurhythmics, Sade, Men at Work, The Style Council, The Police’s Synchronicity and Bowie’s Let’s Dance; my strange interlude of musical taste between folk and folk, records I brought home for free, acquired under peer pressure, or bought to evoke the emotion of the accompanying video. My son held up each cardboard envelope with Rosetta stone reverence. He was familiar with the music but not the personalities or cover art. So different from what I remember, we watched the music first and listened later, almost as an afterthought.

We carried the stack inside. Without a working turntable, we turned to YouTube, searching for bands and songs my son didn’t recognize or had not seen. Among others we found Duran Duran’s “Hungry like a Wolf” and Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” Little movies, some dated, some still shockingly provocative.  He laughed at how formulaic and young Madonna seemed in her first appearances. We imitated her and her back up, dancing around the basement. We perused old photos of big hair and bad outfits because it wasn’t just the leggings and the tunic t-shirts, there were preppy patterns and motorcycle chic and high-waisted Calvins and shoulder pad and sleeves that puffed out like a Shakespearean courtier.  

We quickly researched how much it would cost to buy album cover frames to hang on my son’s wall. He imagined a sort of revolving gallery. He looked up a few songs on iTunes after all. Then we went to bed. The next morning brought toast, coffee, work, school, all trenched firmly in the twenty-first century. I did hear a faint murmur of “If I Live to Tell” as my son left for the bus.     

I could not have guessed where our snowy search for long underwear would lead us. On any other evening, if I had offered my experience without contextual links, my son would have balked. Every step, every line of dialogue, every snicker, moved us toward our ordinary extraordinary evening sharing music and memory. The same sequential events could have seemed like random snapshots without the tether of momentum, an awareness of meaning stringing one odd decision to the next.

In the news: a pilot saves a plane load of people; another pilot drops bombs on a town; a new president takes office; a governor is arrested; movie stars win statuettes; 65,000 workers lose their jobs. Front page, sprawling stories that happen once, twice or just to other people. We often track moments that lead to life-altering events, asking: what if we had changed one part of the pattern, would it have made any difference? This question hovers through literature and pop culture, most recently in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We witness the grand scale montages, but wonder, what happens to the rest of us, in the rest of our days? The clock ticks through seemingly insignificant routines and daily errands that add up, not to high drama, but to a life spent. We grow bored by the winding trails of our snail progress and we are slow to distinguish the shimmering evidence of our own time.   

How easy it would have been to derail our impromptu Eighties evening, rejecting the spontaneous as too arbitrary to pursue, opting for planned order or waiting for a flashy turning point that made perfect sense in retrospect.  Between the tick tocks of an ordinary day, there is universal rhythm in what is happening now, watching and listening to music as we make it.

14 responses to “An ordinary evening of unexpected sequence”

  1. Beautiful story, Pandora; thanks. Wall hangings is a good use for old album covers when you don’t have a turntable (or aren’t interested in listening to the album any longer but still like the cover art.)

  2. Cannon says:

    Ugh! I have such a hard time downloading music because of the lack of booklet. And the music that I do download absolutely needs to have the album art attached to it so I can see it as it plays in Winamp or on my iPod.

    As for the genre addressed in this post, I swear that at least once a week I wish to myself that I were born 15 years earlier so that I could have been an adolescent in the 80s. And on that note, queue up a little “Break My Stride”.

  3. I wish to myself that I were born 15 years earlier so that I could have been an adolescent in the 80

    Trust me, it wasn’t that great…

  4. PB says:

    Cannon, a funny side bar, one of my favorite NY stories was sitting in a car full of Greatwhatsit-ers driving through a recently gentrified area of Manhattan. Someone (a youngish someone) said: “I wish I had known New York in the ’70’s, Scorsese’s New York, when it was dirty and mean.” I thought that was the most classic line I had ever heard. This same someone wrote about it later – – you have a classic case of “mistalgia.”

  5. Cannon says:

    I think I have chronic mistalgia. I also wish I were a musician in the 20s-30s (I grew up playing trombone, so naturally, I’m a big Glenn Miller, etc., fan). The latter half of the 19th century England appeals to me. I wish I lived through the 50s/60s so that I could’ve been a greaser from SE Hinton’s “The Outsiders”.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love most everything about the noughties. I’m just stricken with awe and fantasy when I read or learn about happenings in those times.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    Thank you Pandora, I’ve been having a really stressful day (budget-cuts and layoffs), and needed a diversion. BTW- The Syncronicity album is still amazing.

  7. How do you feel about “Ghost in the Machine”, Marleyfan?

  8. (I remember being committed at 15 to the proposition that “Ghost in the Machine” was the superior album. At this point in life I have very little memory of either record.)

  9. PB says:

    Modesto Kid – In my opinion Synchronicity totally holds up and is the better album. What your 15 year old self might not have appreciated were the sweeping mythological references punctuated by rage and heartbreak in equal parts. Even if you did get the references – the reason the album gets better is that the older you get and the more you get kicked around – the more the trilogy song cycle in particular, just knocks you out. I still play it regularly. Along with Joshua Tree which is scripture. My son and I also had a whole conversation about the concept album vs. a loose collection of songs. A lost art really. Although Sufan Stevens still does it. And Iron and Wine. And my girl Gillian Welsh.

  10. PB says:

    Hang in there Marleyfan – I feel for you.

  11. Jane says:

    Another beautiful post, Pandora. Thank you.

  12. Natasha says:

    PB, your post made me think. It, also, somehow connected to your previous comment about Dorothy’s post, which I had a chance to read today. Thank you for putting it out there!

    In the past few months, I witnessed four major accidents and was able to get there all four times before the police did (my city PD jokingly offered me a job). One of them was a biker, who got thrown off a bike by a major impact and was unconscious and seriously bleeding. While I was trying to cross the street in the midst of cars, I was yelping at the other three nonchalant by-standers. I yelled that the first few moments after the accident are critical and they could try to help him before it’s too late. They yelled something about getting sued and that I should not touch him either. I didn’t care. I revived him and put pressure on the bleeding stomach wound, so he would not lose blood. When he became conscious, he uttered some serous cursing, and I was combobulated: life made sense that day.

    On the other hand, the gentleman (if you remember my office drive-through), who flew off the ladder, was not majorly injured. After the accident, he went to get his chest x-rayed to check on internal injuries and found out he had lung cancer. He had no idea he had it and never smoked a cigarette in his entire life. He arrived to my office just a few minutes before the accident, set up his ladder and started working on my sign. The UPS guy walked in just in time to give me an envelope with payroll. I signed it and got up to walk to another desk to give it to my employee. When she drove in, she hit the letter and leveled my desk with the ground.

  13. Nice post PB! Some time I should try writing about ordinary experiences.

  14. slade says:

    loved the post pandora. always lovely to hear a snippet of a life well lived! xx