Reclaiming the past

The first podcast I ever listened to was “The Talk Show” by John Gruber, the proprietor of Daring Fireball – a minimalist site, mostly about Apple, with roots in the pre-Facebook Internet. It was about the then-upcoming changes in iOS 7: More Photoshop than Xcode, I think Gruber said, noting that the much-hyped overhaul of Apple’s most popular platform would be more cosmetic than functional. He was right. The big underlying changes didn’t come until iOS 8 and 9.

It seems like smalltalk in retrospect, but I remember it well since: 1) it was my first podcast; 2) it highlights how superficial the art/science distinction is. The switch from puffy, “likable” icons in iOS to the “flatness” of iOS 7 is probably the single biggest change that most longtime users of iOS can remember. Is there similar sentimentality for the introduction of share sheets in iOS 8? The implementation of FaceTime in iOS 4?

The flat redesign of iOS made the OS normal. No longer did you need encouragement via textured icons and graphics based on items like bookshelves, felt-lined drawers, and reel-to-reel tape decks to let you know it was ok to touch the screen. The “normcore” design of iOS 7 freed up Apple to then be much more ambitious with its technical implementations: Features like inter-app sharing, widgets, and superior interactivity with other devices (like Apple Watch) would have been strangers in the strange land of the bolted-down plush toy display of iOS 6 and earlier.

The evolution of iOS is a testament to how art often drives science, rather than the other way around (the latter has been endlessly discussed in considering the effects of increasingly sophisticated drawing and photo editing tools, social medial appropriation/reblogging, etc. on “art”). For all the hype about the need for STEM skills and “technical” employees, demand for anything – from Instagram to superior accounting tools – is in some way a demand for a better life filled with art, whether said art is time to read Nietzsche, watch another “Star Wars” sequel, or go out for an enjoyable meal.

This realization didn’t crystalize for me until at least 2014. I wish it had been in my mind over the preceding decade, though, when I saw so many students with “useless” majors – myself included, as a Classics concentrator (my college didn’t use the “major” terminology – derided for not fitting into a world obsessed with “innovation” built largely on Excel spreadsheets and 8th-grade math. I remember 8th grade: Algebra 1, taught to me by a Mississippian on the verge of retirement. Maybe she should have invented Uber. She probably could have.

My new views on education and its individual subjects have liberated the past for me. I feel bad now that I felt bad during those years when I thought nothing was useful except the STEM subjects, which I cursed myself for many nights for not studying. More sunnily, I can now call back my walks through the Chicago South Side, on the UChicago campus, when I was desperate for work and wondering if anyone cared about my thoughts about Washington Irving’s “Salmagundi.” Now I know that what I learned about “stew-like” composition from that book was invaluable to my development of a distinctive “professional” and personal writing style that has helped provide for my family.

I heard William Faulkner’s “The past is not dead; it is not even past” quip in the 1990s, but didn’t give it any consideration until at least 2006 when I was writing about “Light in August” for an English course, late at night while listening to Explosions in the Sky. Everything I had consumed up to that point – from TV shows to conversations throwaways about “moving on” since “that’s in the past!” – made it feel like the past was a train stop receding into the distance as the locomotive pressed ever-forward. But a train stop is never disposable or one-way; other trains will pass it by, perhaps even the same train going back on the same tracks in another direction.

Railroads became my favorite metaphor for understanding Faulkner’s concept of time. Music also helped stretch out my feel for the past. During the last few months of college, I became a huge fan of the Anjunabeats record label. That sounds like bullshit: Who can even name a record label, much less like it? The Anjunabeats affinity was an accident. In late 2006, I had searched for “Delays” (some British pop group that my roommate was into it) on eMusic, finding nothing by them. There was a result, though: a compilation of tracks by another label, Renaissance UK.

Listening to the lengthy set immersed me in electronica (or dance or trance or EDM or whatever term was then-popular to distinguish non-guitar, non-rap popular music) and led to a CD buying binge so that I could fill up some of vast unused spaces on my iPod. By late 2007 I had branched out into other labels but the 2-disc mixed compilation was still my favorite medium: varied, yet consistent in its churn, like the day writer I would eventually become, using templates to write about VoIP and help desks in slightly different tones.

Anjunabeats was actually a group before it was a label. Once it expanded from a duo to a trio, it took the name Above & Beyond, still the most famous artist on the imprint. The first Anjunabeats track I heard was by Above & Beyond and it was called “Good for Me.”

The track was actually a remix. It faded it with a sudden pulse and descent into gentleness that felt just like waking up – which I was doing that spring day in 2008, while the fog went away outside and my friend who had just dropped me off from on the drive from Cranston – I had slept the whole way – sped away.

“Good for Me” and its parent album, “Tri-State,” had been released in 2006. When I listened to them in the months and years afterward I would call back to mind that white-hued morning in the dorm, but also my own once-ignorant (of Above & Beyond) experiences in 2006.

Something like the trip I took with my brother and cousins to a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament in Louisville in the summer of ’06 – when I never listened to a single second of the Anjunabeats catalog – were now soundtracked in the blue waves of my memory with “Good for Me” or any of the other fantastic cuts from “Tri-State.” My recollections of life before the iPhone (release in 2007) would also become not just clichédly sepia-toned, but soundtracked by A&B, or Smith & Pledger, or any of the vast Anjunabeats stable that released singles throughout the mid-2000s.

This sort of reclamation of the past hurt my head at first – what should I call it? Eventually “retrofitting” felt right. It was as if the past were a manufactured thing – this chair, this table, this turntable, it’s all ‘the past’ since it bears some old design into the present, and then there’s the idea of the past which often cannot be shut-out of thought – with new things being added to it.

The past as railroad; the past as commodity; maybe the past as building – in multiple sense of the word – captured what I felt most closely. The old dormitory where I smoked from my red-and-black bong, or the wood-paneled bar room in which I conferenced happily with a TA in 2008 but now remember sadly because I saw some guy who dismissed my interest with business-like “best of luck in your search!” bullshitese using it as the backdrop for its Facebook profile – these are the retrofitted places of the brain.

The lyrics of OceanLab’s “Breaking Ties” were helpful: “Though I may return/To empty places on my own.” The locations – buildings, mostly – of the past are indeed emptied of the clutter and the ambience – like the “genuine 60s dust” that Lee Mavers of The La’s lamented was missing from the band’s recording gear and studios – but they’re still receptive. They can be filled, retrofitted with other songs, other places overlain, other times.

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