Of Letters and Mix Discs

My main man from Asheville, NC, Pat Haney stopped through my area a few weeks ago and as college buddies who now live a much more normal life will do, we talked about the past, otherwise known as “the good ‘ol days.” We cracked a few beers and poured over some old pictures, recounting the people in them and the situations surrounding them. Whomever said, “A picture tells a thousand words” was dead on. Pat and I laughed, drank more, kept laughing and then, drank some more.

I feel like I wax nostalgic about the past a bit more than I should, but as my group of friends progressively gets older, I feel that I’m not alone. I guess when you get out here in the real world of kids, bills, houses and everything else that is supposed to be adult, you tend to yearn for the simple days again. It’s hilarious when I think back of how stressed we all thought we were in college with tests, relationships and getting up before noon. Know what else I miss?

-When we wanted to take a day off, we skipped class. Unless the class you had kept ‘attendance,’ there was no sick days or vacations that were docked off.

-We partied on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays…at least. For some reasons, our bodies never really caught up to what we were doing to them. Now, heading out for just a few drinks turns the next morning into a St. Patty’s-style hangover.

-We experimented. Drugs, sex, facial hair (not always in that order). You name it, we did it.

-Dates? Yeah, right. Try formals, meeting up at keg parties or talking for 10 minutes at the Union. That was considered a date. A formal dinner date and the movies? Only if someone had a 2-for-1 coupon and it was $1 night at the local cineplex.

-Like clockwork, the campus gyms were packed two weeks before spring break as if we could suddenly turn into Joe and Jane Adonis in 14 days. See the massive drinking reference above as to why we constantly failed.

But you’ve heard me ramble before about college.
There were two other items that I came across this week that also made me think in the vein of simpler times: letters and mix cd’s.

I was watching an episode of “The Wonder Years” recently where the focus was Kevin and the Arnold family heading out for a vacation at the ocean. At this point, K-Dogg was split up with Winnie Cooper and met an older girl that changed his way of thinking. They hung out, eventually kissed and just like that, her family was heading home to Arizona and the romance was over. But what caught me was the last few minutes of the show when Kevin’s older self (brilliant voiceman Daniel Stern) talked about how Kevin and his summer love wrote each other letters for weeks on end and then, they just stopped. It struck me because like many of you reading this, I was once in the position of writing letters to people in far-away places. It may just be me, but those days are seemingly gone.

Since email has eclipsed the post office in terms of immediacy and convenience, the art of sending letters has all of died; picking out the right paper, deciding if you should use a pen or pencil and the final goodbye of dropping that little envelope into the mailbox. All of us had that summer romance or that pen pal growing up that made you excited every time you opened up the mailbox, sending words on paper that gave you that euphoric “somebody cares” feeling. I used to keep letters for months, hidden away from the possible prying eyes of my parents, pulled out whenever I wanted to get that feeling again. The hearts that dotted the i’s, the perfect cursive, the minute details and inane questions that somehow seemed so very important when reading them over and over again. I think they reflected something that we’ve lost in our lives over time which is innocence.

So, RIP letters. You gave millions of people something they needed growing up: a little bit of hope.

(While we’re here, what of summer romances? I hope that kids still go away on vacations, meet other kids and have the same experiences we did upon coming home. But do they exchange email addresses now? How does this work? Do they go on this show?)

Finally, I need to drop a few words on mix tapes/cd’s. Yeah, if you liked someone or they liked you at any point during the mid-80s through the debut of Ipods, you got or made a mix of songs for a certain person. The ultimate form of expression, this interwoven collections of songs were a real marker for blossoming relationships. Essentially, you were telling the person that this is what you think of them via song. It was a HUGE risk because if they didn’t like Faster Pussycat or Extreme, your disc was f’d. On the flip side, there was nothing worse than getting a tape that just didn’t cut it. Gushy ballads for guys? Yuck! How many growing relationships broke up or never reached fruition over a bad mix o’songs? Thousands. Yeah, most were in middle school or high school but those count too. Thanks a ton, Rick Astley.

My best effort with a collection of songs came in 2000, back when burning CD’s was more of a chore than it is now. It was for a girl named Anne, who I discussed in a non-publicized blog back in January of 2005. It was Christmas time and she was heading home to Michigan, so I put my heart into a powerful two-disc set that was a mix of most of her favorite music in addition to some of my own. How’d I get her music? I tricked her into listing out her Top 10 songs of all time and then, I built it from there. Complete with hand-drawn artwork (stick figures, baby), it was a last-ditch effort to make something happen before the big trip. She opened it up on the plane and called me later that night to tell me it made her cry. Two months later, we weren’t talking. There are times I wonder if she still has those discs that I worked so hard to make perfect. This time, I don’t blame Rick Astley.

Anyway, those mixes meant a lot because someone put in the effort to make them for you. Back when it was just tapes, that was practically like asking someone to marry you if you took the hours of effort into creating 60 minutes of greatness. While I love IPods and the convenience of carrying four CD books worth of songs in the palm of your hand, I think that like letters, the innocence of creating a mix has been lost.

So what does looking at old pictures and reminiscing about letters and mix cd’s have to do with one another? Not much really, other than acknowledging that while it’s great to keep looking ahead, it’s ok to turn your shoulder and look behind you too.