I Love My iPod (And Other Strategies of Denial)

May 31, 2006 at 2:43 pm (Uncategorized)

The odds were probably in favor of me writing today about my impending trip to Doctorville. But there’s really nothing more to say. Either my treatment changes, or it stays the same, and either way, I will be vaguely unsatisfied as well as vaguely grateful that things are not as bad as they could be. Anyway, I’m in denial. Ask me why I’m going to Philadelphia tomorrow, and I’ll give you a lovely blank stare. Philadelphia?

No, my topic for the day is my iPod. I love my iPod. It was a Mother’s Day present from Jay and Andrew, though I doubt Andrew had much of a role in picking it out; left to his own devices, he would have selected a miniature garbage truck and then kept it for himself. Before I had my very own iPod, I had no idea how it would revolutionize my life. And no, I only wish Apple was paying me to gush like this.

To understand my relationship with my iPod, you’ll need a little back story. One important aspect of my life is getting exercise, which usually involves going to the gym. I love how I feel once I’ve worked out. There’s nothing like the flush of endorphin, the sense of accomplishment, and the honest fatigue of having slogged out a chunk of time on the elliptical trainer or the stationary bike or the treadmill. When I skip a week or two of exercise, I feel as though toxic sludge has accumulated in my veins and my entire being is greasy. I also get moody and stiff-jointed.

But, even though I know I’ll feel better when I’m done, I still have to overcome the forces of inertia to get myself to the gym and then to make it through a workout. I am one of those people who cannot grind away at exercise with nothing to distract me from the fact that my legs are hurting, I am flailing my arms and legs to stay in place, and only two minutes have passed though they feel like twenty. Even when I was a competitive cyclist and spent hours every week training, I was like this. I consistently tanked in time trial events, which pits individual riders racing against the clock instead of against each other in a giant pack. Forty feet down the road from the time trial start line, I would become acutely aware of how incredibly dull this all was, and I would lose heart. I needed other riders threatening to crash into me or sprint away. Since that’s not likely to happen on the treadmill (at least not without hiring a really edgy personal trainer), at the gym I must listen to music or read something incredibly brainless if I have any hope of lasting longer than those two minutes.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who can make do with just any music or any magazine. I most strongly feel that my husband is an alien when I catch sight of him soaking an Economist or Financial Times with sweat while he plows through a workout. When we were living in Palau and he was desperate for American football, I caught him watching European soccer league games while he rode the stationary bike. Now there’s a sport for the insomniac. I’m much more picky.

This pickiness takes two forms and my iPod addresses them both. Pre-iPod (or what I now think of as the dark ages), I was forced to depend on our gym’s two communal CD players that you can claim on a first come first serve basis. This means that you’re just as likely to end up listening to something like Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Beatles as you are something of your own choice. Remember, we live in Montana, which means that alternative radio is Christian light rock, and it seems to be against the law to play any music released after 1979. I don’t know about you, but one whiff of “Yesterday” when I’m trying to get my heart rate above 120 beats per minutes and I lose my will to live. I once had a spinning instructor who insisted on playing Sarah McLachlan. Imagine spinning as hard as you can to that rainy-day music. I’d find myself yawning and dreaming of my down comforter in the middle of the exercise class.

I am not sure what it is about a blog that puts a gal in a confessing mode, but it’s high time I reveal the dark side of my soul. I’m talking about my music of choice for exercise. Now let me preface my dirty little secret with the disclaimer that I truly do have the capacity to listen to songs played on real instruments and that I have a wide range of music I like to hear when I’m not working out. When I’m puttering around the house, I might put on Iris DeMent or AFI or Bill Monroe or Mozart or Louis Armstrong or Lifehouse or the Old 97s or The Clash. But when I am on the elliptical trainer, I want all techno dance music all the time. Gasp. Well, sometimes I want popped out “alternative” music like Blink 182, The Offspring, or Sum 41. But that’s pretty bad too.

Here’s what makes a good workout song in my book. Most important is the beat – the faster the better. I want my music to inspire me to want to keep pace with my exercise machine, not induce narcolepsy. If this means the singer sounds more like Minnie Mouse than an adult, so be it. If this means the song consists of basically three notes replayed at very fast speeds, then fine. Second, the more vacuous the lyrics, the better. There was a time and place for intense teenage angst, and it is no longer now. I do not want to contemplate my mortality, the ultimate destruction of the world, or the general pain of the human existence on the Stairmaster. I spend enough time doing so in my real life. A good dance song has repetitive meaningless lyrics, like “Hit, hit, hit the dance floor,” which banish thought and make me want to move. Even better are the amazing Eurodance songs I found on iTunes. These songs are in various foreign languages, including Romanian and Polish. Listening to them conjures up images of a crowded club in Warsaw, packed with fresh-faced teenagers who exude promise and hope as they writhe and groove across the dance floor, moving their bodies into the future. But best yet, are Eurodance tunes sung in heavily accented English, which makes for some hilarious attempted rhyme schemes, like “I will be sad, sad, sad/If I can’t take you to bed.” There’s just something wonderful and hopeful about these songs. They do not make me want to fall off the elliptical trainer and lurch home, which happened the one time I listened to Nirvana at the gym.

I’ve now downloaded about 100 songs that I am too embarrassed to play in public. I’ve got the complete remixed Erasure oeuvre, along with Blue Ice’s seminal remix of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei,” (which, after seeing Andrew become addicted to this song after one listening, I am convinced is the musical equivalent of crack), and DJ Bobo’s “Love is All Around.” With my iPod, I don’t have to worry about other people listening in on my bad habit. After all, I’m a writing teacher now. I should be listening to Verdi or Coltrane, not “Feel the Vibe.” Plus, my iPod lets me customize my playlist so that whenever I tire of, say, DJ Mangoo’s “Eurodancer,” (though how one could ever have enough of this masterpiece, I’m not sure) I can ditch it and add more Floorkiller.

Even if I were willing to suffer the shame of putting a disk with these tunes in the public CD players, I have another musical itch that the iPod lets me scratch. I can be, um, temperamental when it comes to matching music to my mood. There are days when I simply must listen to Erasure’s “Blue Savannah Sun” four times in a row. The closest Jay and I have ever come to divorce is on long car trips when I nix forty-five songs on his iPod and settle on one that I play over and over. “Don’t you just love this music?” I will say. “Well, I did once,” the sourpuss responds. (I’m happy to report that Andrew has inherited my predilection. On our drive back from Seattle we listened to “Rawhide” at least nineteen times in a row at Andrew’s request.)

The other benefit of the iPod is that it makes me a self-contained unit at the gym. When I go to work out, I don’t want to have to deal with my “real life.” I typically am unwashed when I arrive, and since I come for decompression, the last thing I want to do is chat with someone about my health status, their health status, or any other topic that requires thought. Which can be a problem in Helena, Montana, a town so curiously provincially social that the mayor sidelights by driving a bicycle rickshaw outside the local taproom on weekends. It’s not a small town, but it’s small enough to guarantee that I will see someone I know at the gym. Walking around with headphones and a blasting beat ensures that most of these folks leave me alone. While I know this attitude would earn me a Communitarian group tongue-lashing, I will say in my defense, that being left alone with DJ Magoo for one hour makes me a much nicer person for the other 23 hours of the day.

I’ve tried talking to my friends about my particular distraction needs at the gym, and, to tell you the truth, they’re pretty clueless. “Why don’t you just watch TV like everyone else?” they ask. (Our gym has three televisions you can plug into. One is perpetually tuned to CNN.) The last thing I want to do when I’m exercising is watch the news. Let me provide an example. Yesterday, CNN devoted the entire hour I spent on the elliptical trainer to the civilian deaths at Hadith, Iraq, and the likely role U.S. Marines played in the massacre. Whenever I glanced at the television, I saw images of corpses wrapped in bloody white cloths, or of a scrawny little boy showing a bullet scar in his back, or a ceiling spattered with the blood of a civilian who was shot in the head, or of the accused Marines, none of whom looked old enough to shave, much less kill on their journey into their own hearts of darkness. Even seeing these visuals without the sound was enough to fill me with a sense of the futility and bleakness surrounding us all. I don’t care what your political stripe is, this should make you feel physically sick. I stared, thinking about atonement and how the real politicos would undoubtedly say “This is war,” but I have had too many people like this in my own life (with its problems small in comparison) not to want to hurl my breakfast all over the person next to me. I stopped watching and concentrated on the pulsing rhythm in my ears. Does this make me a bad person?

I’m not advocating wholesale tuning out. I scrupulously try to stay abreast of world, national, and local news with the Economist, the paper, and NPR–just not at the gym.  In my opinion, a key part of being a citizen of the world involves staying somewhat informed. I just need an hour here and there away from the gore of war, the starving children’s faces, the ever-mounting trade deficit. I also need a break from Andrew’s constant and insatiable needs and worries about my health and future. Really, there’s only so much fretting you can do in a day. I certainly am avoiding reality when I shut my brain off and let the cheesiest music in the world take me to a zone that transcends conscious thought. I like my dance music precisely because it helps me not think.

Jay likes to joke that I am Cleopatra, the Queen of De-Nial. There’s a lot of truth to his moniker. I think that surviving a chronic illness (or a crazy world, financial difficulties, rowdy kids, a tweaked back – whatever ails you physically or spiritually) requires that you forget about it when you can. Which can be tough. Worry is a social beast; it likes to collect a pack of friends and go rooting through your mental trashcans just to see how much of a mess can be made. Enter my iPod and my other mechanisms of denial. They work.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Polish techno and a treadmill.

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