Listening to music had always been a big part of my life. No, not classical music, but emo soppy mandarin/cantonese pop with some american/british pop (I was crazy over Take That) mixed in. I won’t pretend to have discerning music tastes – I don’t. I really enjoy listening to songs that sing of enduring heartbreak and unending yearning.
I feel lucky to have been born in the 80s’, because I spent a huge part of my formative years in analog. Life is so noisy and instantaneous these days that it is easy to forget once upon a time, it was not considered rude to not answer phone calls, because there was only one house phone shared among the entire household. There were no text messages awaiting for response, no caller ID (it was considered a luxurious expense because you have to pay both the subscription and the expensive phone), no notifications from ten different social networks. Every time I feel bad about living like an antisocial hermit now I think about my life in the 80s – everyone was almost a hermit, you have to go out of your way to hang out with friends, they were not just a click away.
I spent a lot of time reading and listening to music, because there was nothing else to do. My families (plural because I grew up in two separate households) liked watching TVB dramas and their music variety programs. I grew up on a diet of Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Danny Chan, and later on when I developed my own tastes I was obsessed with Faye Wong. My commute to school was about an hour, so music accompanied me during those long lonely rides.
We bought albums on cassette tapes, and making a mixtape was a lot of rewinding and forwarding to get to the right track, and having to manually press “record” when the original tape was playing. I guess I was lucky to have a player that had a double cassette deck (another luxury) for recording mixtapes. They sold empty tapes in 90 minute versions, which could hold up to 10 songs on each side. Yes, we had to manually flip the cassette after one side is done.
Compact discs arrived and I blew most of my pocket money on buying CDs, starving the rest of the month. Back then we had to spend $20 (SGD) on an album and hope that it was good (it usually wasn’t, only a track or two). Making mixtapes with cassette tapes became easier because we no longer had to guesstimate the rewinds to find where tracks start.
Imagine going from that to burning music on CD-Rs – we could listen to our favourite track on repeat forever. I remember saving up to buy a discman that had an anti-skip feature – because music would skip due to the lens having trouble reading the disc if it couldn’t stay in place.
Needless to say, the invention of mp3s was like music heaven, even though 5mb files took an hour to download on a 56.6k connection. I remember feeling really abundant having a 5GB hard drive.
That’s why I feel lucky being born in the 80s. I have huge swaths of memories of living in analog, yet I also experienced the magic of the dramatic leaps in technology. Once in a while I still catch myself marvelling at all things that magically happen with a click. I get tired of notifications and the sense of being forced to be available online, but I still get thrills out of sending texts to my friends thousands of miles away, and seeing them reply in real time.
Somehow along the way in the past few years, I stopped listening to my music. Part of the reason is I stay home a lot now, so there is less time to listen to music on commutes. I have also developed an attention deficit due to the magic/poison of the internet. Wanting to become more mindful, I stopped using music as a crutch during exercise. It now feels weird to slip on a pair of headphones and simply enjoy the music without doing anything else – something I used to do for hours a day.
But it was so much of my life. It comforted me all those times I was sad, depressed, suicidal, heartbroken, pining, lonely, confused, fatigued, bored. It is like a time machine: listening to certain tracks is like an instant jump to that moment in time, and all the associated emotions come flooding back to me. Maybe for some people that is not a good thing, but for me possibly because of anhedonia the provocation of the music allows me access more dimensions of my dormant inner world.
Music has discernible effects on our brain, so I am not surprised that it soothes, comforts and enlivens me. I am just surprised I forgot how much I enjoy listening to it.
So I started making my own mixtapes again, an activity that is actually enjoyable on its own. It is amazing the expanse of songs available on spotify, how easy it is to search and add to a playlist (I know I sound like an old person but I guess I am pretty old as a person). Spotify has a pretty robust recommendation engine so I discovered tracks I had long forgotten, tracks that were familiar in my childhood but I didn’t know the titles of, tracks that have gone out of print and is impossible to buy now. But Spotify doesn’t have everything, so I dug out my old backups and it made me so relieved that quite a few obscure songs that don’t exist on Spotify or iTunes were preserved in at least 128kbps quality. I felt so full to listen to them again.
I bought a pair of Sennheisers and stopped being an exercise snob: I now listen to my soppy emo music when I take walks – both indoors and outdoors. Rediscovering the dimensional experience of listening to music and the nostalgia that comes with it is making me reevaluate again my tendency for doing things that have quick feedback or short sittings.
It seems so easy to get swept up in a world full of changes, and forget what used to be meaningful or fun when things were at a much slower pace. We try to save time by choosing to do things that are available quickly, but some people including myself have observed the phenomenon that the act of trying to save time ironically makes time seem to pass faster.
There is also a perceived assigned value on what seems to be worth doing. Working for a job or business is worth doing, fervently packing our brains with new knowledge is worth doing, hanging out with friends is worth doing. But what about developing the capacity to be calm and peaceful, spending time to cook a creative dish to nourish our bodies, letting our tired brains take a break from all the stimuli we subject them to, being able to feel full while alone?
I find myself judging myself a lot when I don’t seem to be doing anything “productive”. You would think after six years on this journey I would be better at dealing with this sort of chronic ambient judgment. It affects my daily morale when I end the day feeling like I “wasted” my time. But did I really? Sometimes I think the intelligence of our brains can be quite primitive and we have to teach it consciously to recognise new values and meanings, or it will just keep falling back to the old ones.
Being able to feel a lot less anxious is a huge deal to me, but the lack of anxiety is not something noticeable compared to when we are full of anxiety. Every now and then I have to remind myself to take a deep breath, remember how I used to be, and accurately assess where I am now.
In society’s eyes I am not an productive person, but when I look at myself I see a person growing more capable of appreciating and feeling the fullness that can be derived from everyday life instead of the constant seeking and chasing I used to do. Is my life worth less now because I am less “productive”? Is it good to be “productive” in exchange for the potential of doing more harm? What makes a life valuable?
I like having small, light and less footprints wherever I go.
note: along with this line of thought I have been trying to do things that take up more time, like taking the effort to make the drawings that accompanied this post, writing this post in two sittings instead of always trying to finish it asap. Like in my previous post I think I have to recondition my brain to enjoy effort (instead of associating it with negative feelings) and the slow passage of time. Also, this post is not something I expect people would want to read, but I really want to practice doing things that are more me.