There's a terrific mix CD in my car right now, like it's 2005 or something. I actually received it in the mail just a month or two ago, when I was feeling sad. (That's my default emotion. The friend who sent this to me clearly thought that sadness was a novelty -- like, a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing. This is a new friend, obviously.)
The mix CD is only 15 tracks long, and it came without a track list, but that's OK; a person listening gets the gist. These are all recorded-in-a-garage-while-in-a-cheery-mood-type songs: Harlem, early Belle and Sebastian, the like. It makes you feel like putting on loose jeans, drinking artisanal beers, and playing ironic '80s video games on mute. I like playing it really loud when it's cold enough to merit driving in New Orleans.
I got the mix CD in the mail from a person I have met only twice. Once in New Orleans as mutual admirers of each others' comedy (we had sex; it was great); and once where he lives as mutual admirers of each others' comedy (he must have been sleeping with someone semi-monogamously, or I put on a lot of weight unknowingly since the first time we met, because he treated me like his buddy Stanley and ended our hang-out with a shoulder punch). Despite knowing very little about this person, we have stayed semi-regular pen-pals -- except that we entered into the very dangerous letters-must-increasingly-upgrade spiral of futility.
Sometimes you become pen pals with a person, and it's great. You both feel totally OK with sending each other postcards with funny pictures on the front, and nothing much has to be said in the note. Maybe it's just an acknowledgement of a small thing that happened that day; maybe it's a quick question and a hasty explanation of the picture. Those epistolaries are destined to be long-lasting and sustainable.
But sometimes you become pen pals with a person, and at FIRST it's great. But then you get a letter from the person that's amazing -- I mean, this thing should go in some kind of indie compilation of old-fashioned letters in the modern age. (Why do people write letters anymore anyway? Who cares, because this letter is Joaquin Phoenix of hand-written shit. It needs no explanation. It is a wonder. You want its autograph.) And then you feel pressure to write an even BETTER letter than this person's letter. Then THEY write you an EVEN MORE INCREDIBLE LETTER BACK. Then THAT letter, in all its glory, just sits on your desk. Every time you look at it, your stomach lurches with nauseous intimidation. To respond to this letter would take an hour AT LEAST -- and who has an hour? You swear you will make the time. You promise. But the more time passes, the more the letter becomes a symbol of ignominy. You tell yourself you will make up for how much time has passed by writing THE LETTER TO END ALL LETTERS. It will take you a whole Saturday, but you'll find a whole Saturday one of these Saturdays. Eventually, a month goes by, and that letter sitting on your desk might as well be the one sewn to Hester Prynne's dress because that's how much shame it invokes. You hide it so you don't have a panic attack. And then suddenly it's been six months, and you haven't responded. And then you just text the person to say you're sorry.
That's what happened with this friend. I don't remember who texted whom, but the conversation went like this:
Hey, sorry I haven't written you in a while. How are you?
Oh, it's OK, I totally forgot about it. I'm... sad. How are you?
Yeah. Maybe it's the winter.
Maybe everything in the world is the worst.
Everything in the world is the worst FOR REAL.
After 150 more text messages like this spread over a couple days, I got a package in the mail that contained a paperback novella, a painted box of matches, the mix CD, and a note card that said, "Everything's Kind of Alright and That's Alright." I pinned the note card above my desk. I look at it all the time with the kind of melancholy righteousness of a college freshman gazing at the brand new "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster she thumbtacked to her ceiling; you know, "just in case."
Anyway, the point is that I love this mix CD. It's amazing how tiny the window of relevance was for mix CDs. The '80s and '90s had mix tapes on lock, and honestly, most of us were still making them in the early ots. Even now, mix tapes have ironic hipster appeal -- a boy I met on OKCupid who listed the six things he couldn't live without as "PBR, American Spirits, and who cares" (seriously) made me a mix tape just a few years ago; because, of course he did.
But mix CDs are a little different. In 2004, they were unstoppable. They dominated relationship dialogue. (I remember receiving a mix CD from a "friend" that contained the Ani DiFranco song "Pulse" on it. We dated for two years, obviously.) Every Christmas you got dozens of them -- that's all anyone could afford, and everyone had Napster and THE BEST TASTE IN MUSIC. We all had stacks of them in our parents' cars and our friends' cars and in our friends' parents' cars. They had creative titles. If you really, really liked someone, you wrote novel-length liner notes for them. ("'Carry the Zero' is my aching heartbeat; my very soul. Listen to 1:02, then start over and listen again. You will hear my heartbeat. Oh my god. THIS SONG IS MY HEARTBEAT.")
And then, 2011: Enter Spotify, Stage Left. I remember the first time I heard about Spotify on a New York Times podcast (which I was listening to on iTunes -- a program that once opened automatically when I turned on my computer, and is today relegated to the bottom of the Applications folder). I thought to myself, "Oh well, this is going to change everything."
And it did.
The last mix CD I got before the one that's in my car right now was from Boyfriend #7. (Yeah, I number them. That way I don't have to humanize them.) He was an artist, so he made a really artsy mix CD with lots of Bjork, all layered onto one track with jungle sounds transitions he made himself. Anyway, I don't know if that really counts. That was more of an artifact for the City Museum of Contemporary Arts. It's the kind of thing that would play along a rotating picture slide projection of insects' wings magnified 100,000 times and colored with food dye.
Boyfriend #6, mind you, made me eight -- eight -- mix CDs. In five months! Our mix CD exchange bordered on unhealthily competitive. We both loved music, and we wanted the other person to know how much we loved music. Those mixes were incredible, and I wish I'd kept better care of them. I let them deteriorate in my car (the way mix CDs do in cars -- you know, they get the chip in a side from a sharp shoe, or someone spills a Blizzard on them or something). I figured I'd get more of them from someone one day. I had no idea that mix CDs were moving toward the endangered species list with such haste.
These days, the tape adaptor in my car is considered way more valuable than the CD player (since you can plug your phone into that, and listen to literally anything you could possibly want to listen to at any given moment.) But two weeks ago, lost in the woods on my way back from a retreat, I suddenly found myself without a cell phone signal. That meant I couldn't listen to Stitcher or Spotify or Pandora. (Also, I was lost. Maybe you're concerned about that. I was too, but it's completely irrelevant to the story, so just ignore that part.) I put on the mix CD from my pen pal. Since I was lost for three hours, I found myself playing track 2 over and over again, deciding I would memorize all the words to the song. How long had it been since I spent that much time with a single song? Just me and the song, bonding, chilling, getting tired of each other.
When I got home, I had this moment of clarity: we should really bring back the mix CD. In the same way that letters in the mail are silly but also wonderful, mix CDs in the age of Spotify say, "Hey, I really like you. Like, I really, really like you." They beg us to spend a little more time than we are used to spending. And sometimes -- maybe even most of the time -- that's a good thing.