By: Christian N. Kraus
As a professor of literature and composition, I’ve always loved the written word. I began reading books probably far more advanced, content-wise, than I perhaps should have, early in my adolescence. My parents, and I love them for it, didn’t really try to sensor what I read. I think they were just glad to see me do it—after all, I was abysmally awful at math, not much better at science, and totally sucked at sports, so I’m sure it made them feel better for me to be good at something. Looking back, it’s with a hefty amount of bemusement that I wonder why I ever thought I would do anything else for a living except to make it with words in one way or another. It should also come as no surprise that, when it comes to reading, I prefer the printed word…newspapers, magazines, books, etc. Hell, like my colleague and friend Carmine Palumbo, I’ll sit and read the back of the cereal box while I’m eating my Frosted Flakes. As Don Henley once noted in a concert he was giving, there are few things “quite as elegant as words on the page.” Thinking about all of this got me thinking about other things that are better experienced in the “real” world as opposed to the “digital” world. This is a short, annotated list of those things.
First—Music: Now, I am an Apple guy. Ever since it was possible to start loading my old CD collection on my iTunes library so I could put it all on my iPod, I’ve been building that library. It takes up the vast majority of the storage on the external hard drives attached to my stereo at home. I love being able to just call up a tune I am in the mood to hear on the Alexa speakers we have placed around the house. And when Alexa is out of commission (which is a lot), I can pull up the Sonos speakers on my iPhone and stream music from them. I can play it all on my main stereo, or be listening to one thing in one room, something else in another, and something else outside on the porch. It’s completely versatile, and I can’t imagine life without these technological capabilities. I mean, we literally have music going in the house from the moment we get up to when we go to bed. BUT…there is something completely transcendental about sitting down on the floor in front of that same stereo, switching the selector over to Phono, pulling out my old vinyl record collection, and spending an evening, or even most of a Saturday or Sunday, putting records on the turntable, hearing that warm, staticy “hiss” when the needle hits the grooves, and feeling the vibrations from the vinyl as the song pours out through the speakers. Like reading words on the page, and holding a physical book in your hand, listening to old records calls for an intimate attention to what you’re doing. It is totally immersive and asks for the use of all the senses—touch, sight, smell, even taste. I swear that listening to music on vinyl, closing your eyes, you can almost taste what the notes are like…warm notes bring hints of vanilla and milk, hard notes leave an acidic taste on the palate. It’s a synesthetic experience, and it is vastly superior to the cold, calculated “accuracy” of the digital music experience.
Second—Cooking: In the past two or three years, I’ve gotten really good at cooking. We started getting those Hello Fresh meal delivery kits, and from there I’ve learned to improvise with just about anything around me and make a better meal than anything we would get dining out. And while I love our kitchen and all the technological advances at my disposal, there is nothing that beats cooking outside over an open fire. And you can cook anything over a fire that you can cook in the kitchen…you just have to keep feeding the fire. Like listening to music and reading, cooking over fire immerses you in the ever unfolding now. It calls for you to pay exceedingly close attention to every move you make. And who hasn’t sat, mesmerized by a fire in the fireplace or outside in a fire pit before? It speaks to our deepest, most primal selves, way down in our DNA when being able to build that fire and cook that food meant our very survival. Of course, being outdoors in the fresh air, taking in the sunshine, and feeling the breeze all, again, call for the use of all the senses, filling the conscious moments with irreplaceable experiences. That’s cooking.
And third—Measuring the Passage of Time: When I was a kid…maybe fourth or fifth grade…I started in with my Daddy about wanting a watch. I’ve always been fascinated with watches. When he asked me what kind of watch I wanted, I told him I wanted this yellow Casio digital watch. It was so cool. It had a timer, and a chronograph, and an alarm, and was waterproof to a hundred meters. The yellow case on the black rubber strap just popped. He refused to buy it. I was devastated. I begged and pleaded, but to no avail. He said, he might consider buying me something like that one day, but before he would, I had to learn the difference between “reading a watch” and “telling time.” He said that any fool can read numbers on a digital screen, but that doesn’t tell them anything at all about what time it is. I admittedly didn’t get it. But, I started to think about it. I started to think about how the gears work inside an old wind up watch movement, or the more advanced automatically winding movements. I thought about how the hands sweep round and round, calling for intense focus on the second hand, affording the ability to literally watch time pass by in a smooth transition from one second to the next. I thought about how those movements mirror the ways the planets move around the sun in our solar system, how the moon moves around the Earth, and how it all swings, in a cycle, repeating endlessly just like the movements in those watches will as long as nothing stops the hands. I thought about all of that, sitting in church on Sundays, my Daddy letting me hold his Seiko automatic watch, turning it over and over in my hands, keeping me from being bored to tears by the droning preacher’s sermon, as I watched those hands move, waiting for them to reach the “get-out-of-church” destination. They moved slowly. But, when I would watch them measure the time it took for something I was enjoying to end, they would move so fast it was unbelievable. One my most treasured possessions today is that old Seiko watch. When I wear it, it truly reminds me of how relative the passage of time is. That watch taught me how to tell time instead of just reading a watch. It reminds me of how precious the moments in front of me are, again, ever unfolding, but ultimately finite.
The author Chuck Palahniuk, in the novel Fight Club, made the pressing point that none of us is “a beautiful, unique snowflake,” and that “[T]his is [our] life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” He’s right, of course, but for one small detail. It ain’t in minutes; it’s in seconds.