Friday, December 19, 2008

iPod shuffling through life

OK, first of all, this is not a product endorsement. This is an invitation to a philosophy of life.

I recently bought an iPod shuffle. I got the shuffle instead of a proper iPod with display not because I knew it would change my life; I chose it because it was cheap. Plus, at 2 GB, it has enough room for a nice variety of songs I like, but not enough to load with my entire music library. This is an important distinction.

As I loaded songs, I knew I had to be picky, so I chose just a few from each artist. I had to think, which are my favorites? Which are the ones I am not sick of, the ones I'm least likely to get sick of if I hear multiple times in the next six weeks as I take 12- and 19-hour train rides? 

After loading 20 episodes of This American Life and 250 songs, I still had room for about 100 songs. Why not, I thought, let the shuffle choose some songs for me? It has an "autofill" button that will "choose items randomly" for you. In a couple of minutes, my iPod was loaded.

I clipped on the shuffle and went for a walk. I've always been opposed to headphones because, I thought, I like to be one with nature. I want to hear the birds and car horns and monkeys rustling in trees. As soon as I hit play, I realized I had been wrong all these years. Even though I couldn't hear those nature sounds, my other senses were heightened. I could see and smell and touch (if I wanted) the birds and cars and monkeys. Plus, my walk now had a soundtrack. 

The third song that came on startled me. It was great. Fun. With cool, funny lyrics. But I had no idea what it was. In fact, I was almost certain I had never heard it before. It must have come out of my library, must be one of the random selections, but I had no idea what it was. 

When I got home, I googled the lyrics, which went like this: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? / I climbed to Dharamshala too, I did / I met the highest lama / His accent sounded fine to me, to me." This was amazing because, first of all, Dharamshala is near where I live in northern India, second, because it was about punctuation (even though I don't know what an Oxford comma is but I sure don't care about it), and mostly, because I was pretty sure this was not my song. It was ... iPod magic.

The song turned out to be "Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend. And it turns out I did have it in my iTunes. But how it got there remains a mystery. I probably downloaded it a while back and instantly forgot about it. And if it wasn't for my iPod shuffle, I would have never heard it.

In addition to providing me with a soundtrack of songs I didn't know I had, the shuffle made me embrace the concept of randomness.

As I lay on a overnight train bench the other day, trying to block out the snoring of the guy next to me, I cranked up the volume on my iPod. Because of its tiny size, the shuffle has no display, so you have no idea what track you're playing, or which one's coming next. (This is why I had to look up the Vampire Weekend song.) You can play the songs straight through your playlist or, what's more fun, you can select random play. Just like the "party shuffle" on iTunes, the random playlist is often incredible: songs that you would never play back-to-back play that way and sound great. As someone proud of his mix-tape-making abilities, I admit I am jealous of the iPod's skills.

The train bounced along. The snoring continued. And I was still awake. I thought I'd like to hear "Oxford Comma," and this is what can be infuriating about the shuffle. Without the display, and without knowing where in your playlist a song is, it can take hours to find it. That's what happened.

I clicked next, and a great song came on, and I thought, "Hmmm, let's listen to this one." I listened for two or three minutes, clicked next again, and again a great song came on. Since I had loaded mostly my favorite songs, every song was just about guaranteed to be great.

Music, of course, has the power to make you nostalgic. Especially when you're on a dark train in the middle of India. One song would remind me of a person. Another would remind me of a cross-country drive, or a commute, or a time I drove around the block an extra time to hear an entire song. As the minutes turned into an hour, I was taken on a journey to concerts and bedrooms and bars. I remembered moments and summers and heartbreaks. This is not homesickness or loneliness, mind you; this is just a collection of recollections.

Finally, I was sleepy, and I still hadn't found what I was looking for. I started clicking, nonstop, until I got to it.  It turned up easier than I thought I would. And then I was disappointed.

First of all, the song just wasn't as powerful as the others. The others were linked to some memory. They were ones I have loved for a long time. This was a new song to me. And compared to the memories the other elicited, this one didn't hold up.

I was also disappointed because, well, I had been searching for this one. And you know how, when you pursue something (or someone), you end up being disappointed when you finally get it? When the other songs came on, there was recognition, but there was also an element of surprise. "Wow ... I hadn't been expecting that song. And it sounds just perfect right now, right here."

So I decided that randomness is the way to go. On my iPod. But also in life. Let every day, every moment come as it may. Leave it up to God's will or fate or destiny or some little computer chip in your iPod. Sometimes you'll be disappointed because it wasn't the song you were in the mood for, or because it was rainy when you went to the beach. Sometimes a song will remind you of something hurtful, just like some days will be hurtful. 

But each song, each moment, each day will help you get where you're going, will combine to create the soundtrack that's your life. 

I'll try never clicking "next" on my iPod again. I can't wait to hear what the next song will be. But I'm going to sit back and enjoy this one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Proctoring poetry

Random scribbles from another two-hour session, this time for an advanced mathematics exam:

Smart Fly

A little after one,
A little fly flew 
Through an open window
Into the room
Where forty-one seniors,
Bent over calculators,
Fingers twirling in hair,
Heads down, eyes here and there,
Worked on the semester one
Math exam.

Less than halfway into the room
The little fly made a U-turn
And flew outside again.


The boy sniffling a lot,
Blowing into tissue a lot,
Looking and sounding like he's about to die
A lot,
Isn't wearing socks.

Mathematically Impossible

Even if you calculate the remainder 
     of a string of numbers,
     when divided by rational roots,
     some things remain irrational.
If you get to the root of the equation,
     examining interior angles,
     following parallel lines,
     certain things will never equate.
Even if you do know x and y,
     having checked all probabilities,
     it's probably still unknown
     why she's your ex

     and not your infinite one.

Friday, December 05, 2008


I am in the middle of proctoring a two-hour macroeconomics exam. The thing looks like a bunch of random lines and charts and senseless questions, but the kids seem to know what's going on.

In the meantime, my eleventh graders are taking the English exam elsewhere. I will soon have a pile of papers to mark. And will I think, "Wow, guess I didn't teach these kids anything this year." The sad realizations of a teacher? Or will I be pleasantly surprised?

Proctoring is a special form of torture, reserved for the seventh circle of hell. You cannot talk. Read. Grade. Look out the window. Just pace the aisles for two hours, checking for cheating. 

Alone in my thoughts. OK, and I sneak out my camera and take a picture, without flash of course. This is what an exam looks like.

Here's a discovery, which isn't all that clever, but something to think about just the same: students at this school do not spend all that much money on shoes. Maybe this does mean something, something regarding economics ...

Back in Chicago, where most of my students were dirt poor, they wore expensive shoes: Timberland, Air Jordan, etc. Here, at this expensive, elite boarding school, where some of my students' parents are executives of multinational corporations, the kids wear ratty Converse All-Stars, cheap Pumas, Crocs. In fact, it seems that the more money in the family, the cheaper the footwear.

So, what does it mean? Is it just a fashion thing? Or are the parents well-off because they're frugal? Or are they teaching their children sound financial management lessons?

Or does it have more to do with the poorer kids back in the big cities? Are they targeted unfairly by marketers and their search for coolness? Do they spend what little they have on a few consumer goods that they can then show off?

These questions are not on the macroeconomics exam. Maybe these are issues for microeconomics. In any case, class, there are five minutes remaining on the test.