“You are the music while the music lasts.”— T.S. Eliot
My brother sent me a fascinating article published recently in New Scientist that warns of the impending loss of a gigantic part of our recent cultural heritage. To quote from the article: “Magnetic tape begins to degrade chemically in anything from a few years to a few decades, depending on its precise composition.” and “The Coordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations has recently estimated that worldwide some 200 million hours of culturally valuable audiovisual content (videotape) is in danger of disappearing entirely if it isn't converted into a preservable digital format.”
This estimate does not include the hundreds of millions of hours of cassette tape recordings and videotapes that you and I and countless other cultural bottom feeders and outsiders and just folk created in those bygone days (not very long ago) of such outdated media. So what do you think? Are those words and music and audiovisual adventures you and I and our friends tried to capture on swiftly disintegrating magnetic tape culturally valuable?
The article continues, “Some cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Galleries and British Library in London do now have digitization plans, but many do not. At current, sluggish rates, 70 per cent of content recorded on magnetic tape will be lost a decade from now.”
Why am I not upset about this?
When I moved to Mendocino eight years ago, I brought with me a trove of about sixty cassette tapes, recordings I had made and recordings made by friends. Then a year ago, when Marcia and I were moving to our new home, I got rid of all but six of those cassette tapes. I just now perused those six artifacts and felt no great need to keep any of them. Yet eight years ago, I couldn’t imagine getting rid of any of those sixty precious cassettes. What changed?
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” — James Joyce
I was sitting on the terrace of the Goodlife Café and Bakery in Mendocino the other day, scribbling away in my notebook and enjoying the dialogue coming out of my pen, when the young woman at the adjoining table looked up from the book she was reading and asked me, “What are you writing?”
“I think it may end up being a novel,” I said, guessing her to be twenty-five, though who can tell anymore? She had short curly black hair, no makeup, big brown eyes, a green tank top showing off muscular arms and a small tattoo of a butterfly on her left shoulder. “Time will tell.”
“You look like a mad scientist,” she said, grinning. “Smiling demonically as you write. What’s it about?”
“I don’t know,” I said, thumbing back through the last few pages I wrote. “I never know until I’m done, and even then I don’t really know until years later, and then years after that I think it must have been about something else. Or…”
“Would you read to me what you just wrote?” She nodded enthusiastically to encourage me. “Please?”
“Well…” I said, never (that I could remember) having read something I’d just written to a complete stranger, especially the unedited rough draft of something. What if it’s awful? “Okay.”
She moved from her table to mine, bringing her mug of black coffee and book and purse and cell phone, and sat close enough so I didn’t have to shout but not so close as to seem intrusive. She struck me as perfectly sane and admirably relaxed—someone on vacation or home visiting her parents—and I assumed the invisible ones had sent her to me for some good reason. You know how that is.
So then I read aloud what I’d written, and as I always do when I read aloud I became my characters, the scene involving Maeve, sixty-two and Irish, Simon, an exceedingly bright ten-year-old American boy, Donald, Maeve’s thirty-four-year-old son, and Ida, Simon’s thirty-two-year-old mother. They are in a diner where Maeve is a waitress.
“What have you settled on, Simon?” says Maeve, resting her hand on Simon’s shoulder, having already heard what Ida and Donald want. “Are you an egg man or a waffle fellow? Or do you fancy pancakes this morning?”
“Don’t you need to write things down?” asks Simon, frowning at Maeve and imagining her as his grandmother. She would be the best grandmother in the world.
“I like to keep my hands free,” says Maeve, winking at the boy. “In case I have to foil a robbery or something along those lines.”
Simon gives her a doubtful smile. “I guess I fancy pancakes this morning, though I’m usually an egg man.”
“Koo koo ka choo,” says Maeve, referencing The Beatles. “And if you don’t mind my asking, what will you be drinking with those cakes? Coffee? A shot of whisky? Or is it…don’t tell me.” She closes her eyes and feigns clairvoyance. “Orange juice.”
“Amazing,” says Simon, madly in love with Maeve. “Large, please.”
“No more amazing than you,” says Maeve, leaning down to kiss Simon’s cheek. “I shall place your order and we will banter further as time allows.”
Maeve strolls away and Simon says to Donald, “Is she always so funny?”
“Only when she’s performing,” says Donald, looking around the crowded diner. “And this is her stage and these are her fans.”
The young woman frowned at me and said, “So then what happens?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Chapter Eight.”
“I love it,” she said, nodding in her enthusiastic way. “When will it be published? I want to get a copy.”
“I…uh…well, assuming I finish writing it some day, I will make some photocopies at Zo right around the corner here and you can buy one if you want. If you give me your address I’ll send you a notice.”
“Photocopies?” She wrinkled her nose. “Can’t you at least put it on Kindle or something?”
“I can’t,” I said, sighing. “I don’t have the heart or the brain for that sort of thing. But photocopies work just fine, believe me.”
“I love to read,” she said, plaintively, “but I don’t find much I like these days.” Then she sighed. “I had this horrible thing happen recently.”
Uh oh I thought. Here it comes. The real reason the unseen ones sent her to me. But she did listen to me and flatter me and I got to hear my words out loud and aimed at someone else. So… “What happened?”
“I was so desperate for something good to read, I decided to read the Harry Potter novels again because when I was eight and nine I was insanely in love with them.” She paused for a long moment as if remembering an old friend she would never see again. “And they were just…so bad. So…infantile. So…predictable and vapid and fake.” She looked at me, horror-struck. “Has that ever happened to you? Where something you thought was so great turns out to be just shit?”
“The thing is,” I said, curious to hear what I was going to say to her, “those books were perfect for you when you were eight and nine. But you’ve changed, and so has your taste. You’ve lived in the real hard cruel world, yes? Had your heart broken a few times. Maybe nearly died. And in your quest for good books you’ve read at least a few, so the bar has been raised for you. You have tasted something better and now the old food just won’t do.” I sighed again. “And so it goes. When I was ten I saw the movie of the musical South Pacific, and I thought it was the greatest movie ever made. But when I was thirty-three, I saw it again in a revival house in Sacramento and I thought it was one of the worst movies ever made, and I ran out of the theater the minute Bloody Mary finished singing Bali Hai.”
“What about your own writing?” she asked sadly. “Things you wrote a long time ago?”
“Certain books and stories have stood the test of time for me, and others haven’t. Happens with music, too. Seems to be the way of things.”
“This helps me,” she said, looking at her phone. “Oh, shit. I am so late. Nice talking to you.”
And with that she was gone, and the first thing I thought was Darn, now I won’t be able to send her a note when I finish writing this book, if I ever do finish. But then she came running back with her pen at the ready, I flipped opened my notebook, and she wrote her name and address in the little space beside Maeve saying Koo koo ka choo.
Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.