The tapes we play

The tapes we play

Sing to me, oh resplendent reader.

What are the lyrics running like children through your mind-yard today?

Are you sure you meant to open the fence?

Sometimes Spotify freezes. The car radio chokes up. Those of us who are dignified and old can remember a time when CDs skipped, tapes got stuck, and (heaven help us) records roiled on “repeat.”

On such occasions, we’re forced to hear the same song over and over. Heaven help us if it’s something vile and venomous like “Jack and Diane.” Heaven help us more if it’s something we adore, soon to be forever fouled by overplay. (Let the record show that I shall never forgive Top 40 radio for thus slaughtering “I Will Wait.” No, I won’t wait with excitement to hear this song ever again, for which I blame all the smarmy-toothed DJs who drove it into the ground. But I digress.)

But more often than not, we have only ourselves to blame for repeating the same songs over and over and over…and over.

Love some lyrics, and you just might get a little too attached. Next thing you know, Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” is the soundtrack to your entire existence.

Cats, being liquid lyrics come to life, are naturally full of song. Cats, too, can get stuck. They replay their personal greatest hits, even if they’re not exactly great.

Nyla looked at me funny. Nyla looked at me funny. Nyla looked at me funny.” – Elliot

“Elliot looked like I was looking at him funny, and it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny. It was less funny than cholera. It wasn’t funny. Elliot isn’t funny.” – Nyla

“Nyla isn’t fun. No fun. No fun. Nyla no-fun.” – Elliot

“Elliot hates fun. I love fun. Elliot doesn’t deserve another rotation around the sun.” – Nyla

“Let’s hate each other more than vegan cheese and ‘Jack and Diane’ and social injustice.” – Nyla and Elliot

Enough choruses of that, and the staff will start to say things like, “Elliot and Nyla seem to have a past.”

They do — and a present, too, all courtesy of a song that was never meant to go on so long.

We’re working on getting them unstuck, and reminding them that they’re each more fun than a yacht overflowing with tiny sweater-vested monkeys and egotistical hooting sea lions in the midst of a full-scale hootenanny.

But some songs are meant to stick around.

Just a few lyrics down the hall, rocker girl Reese has her own repeating rhythms. Dappled with diabetes and ineffable demureness, beautiful but solemn, a mercurial meteor of an elder lady, Reese has rocked and rolled under the radar for many, many, many hours of airplay.

Louder cats come and go.

Adoption embraces her neighbors, while she waits and dreams and lives on insulin and patience.

Her inner song is unbroken: “I am OK. Everything is OK. I am everything. I am everything. I, Reese Rosenberg, am everything.”

Her peace is not the kind that this world gives. And when we’re in earshot, it just might give us the grace to gut our own collection of musical quicksand.

We all have our tapes.

“I’m never going to be the pretty/smart/cool/luminous one.”

“I’m married to this sadness. It’s just who I am.”

“I do not like people who vote/live/dream/dance/comb their hair that way. Never have, never will.”

“I will always be at least a little terrified.”

We hear the rhythms so constantly, we forget there’s a tape in there at all.

But two sages in my life have pointed to the tapes and insisted they can be popped out of the boom box. From the earliest age I can remember, my Mom has cautioned me, “watch your words.” Sometimes she drives me crazy (yes, present tense; some lyrics and lessons are never fully learned this side of the veil).

“Don’t say ‘I’m so stressed out!’ Say, ‘I’m going to get everything done, and God is going to help me.'”

“Don’t say ‘I’m a hideous turd!’ Say, ‘OK, the stylist cut my bangs like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, but they will grow. Also, barrettes.'”

“Don’t say ‘it’s over.’ Say, ‘what do I have to look forward to next?'”

The second sage was a cool, kind character who sat in the back of the high school bus with me. We’ll call this brilliant boy Ian. I’m sure we went to the same high school, but somehow I never saw him in its halls. Perhaps he was an actual angel, but we’ll leave that for another day.

Whatever his origin, Ian had an ear for the absurd, and he insisted that more muddled minds like my own awaken to it. On more than one occasion, Ian insisted that I listen — really really listen — to the lyrics on the radio.

“Do you hear what they’re doing to us? What is this madness?”

And he was right. This was the 90s, so the life-affirming poetry pouring into our ears included:

I’m gonna push you around. And I will! And I will!”

I’m gonna sink to the bottom with you.”

“I have become cumbersome!”

(Note that this was also the decade that gave us a band called Staind, and the everlasting abomination called Achy Breaky Heart. The one redeeming song in the decade was All-Star, which is probably solely responsible for the fact that Ian and I and the rest of the Old Millennials made it.)

But there’s good news, fellow listeners.

We can change the dial.

We can toss the tapes.

We can sing a better song, and festoon the future with the music that heals.

There’s hope for Elliot and Nyla. We’ll keep crooning: “Youze guyze is friends. Give peace a chance. Love is all around. There’s room in the great big Tabby’s Place sky for both of you all-stars. Both. Both. Both. Both.”

And maybe age itself will gentle all of our ding-dong self-songs. The very same guy who was gonna push you around now buoyantly sings “I’m not afraid of getting older!”

There are lyrics that lay us low, and melodies more mirthful than an armada of otters playing Willie Nelson-themed slot machines and singing “Whiskey River.” For heaven’s sake, we live in a world that contains otters and Willie Nelson-themed slot machines and Nyla and Elliot and Reese.

So watch your words. Choose your lyrics. And hear the great laughing Voice singing over all of us in patience and love.

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