In college, I had a radio show. It was called The Janarama Show, and I was assigned a spot no other DJ wanted: Tuesdays, 5:30-7:30 a.m. Yet as a freshman, I jumped out of bed those mornings, eager to play the songs I loved, to bring friends, to accept calls from listeners (a total of five, usually), and speak into a microphone. I loved having a voice, and I taped almost every broadcast. (When I listened to those tapes later, I couldn’t stop cringing.)
The radio station was where I met my husband, who was a college sophomore with an awful penchant for wool sweaters and brown loafers. When I first met him, we talked for a long time, but his puffy white socks stuffed into brown leather told me it just wasn’t the right time for us. A few years later, he was a senior who had finally gotten a decent pair of shoes. That’s when we started dating.
After he graduated, it was unclear if and when we’d see each other again. I didn’t have a radio show anymore, so I sent him a mixed tape.
(For the record, I prefer “mixed tape” to “mix tape.” Mix is a verb, not an adjective. I seem to be the only one in the world of old-fashioned tapes who feels this way.)
Compiling music in the 90s and early 2000s was quite different than it is today. Today, a person can put together a hundred playlists in an hour or less. Your phone or iPod can even do it for you, if you’re really lazy. But in those dark days before Steve Jobs was hailed as a God, I’d sit on the floor of my bedroom, listening to each song I selected before recording it. Sometimes I’d copy it from a CD, sometimes from another tape, which was even more time-consuming. Then, in the process of recording, I’d listen to the song in its entirety so I could pause it at just the right moment to allow space for the next song, and the next. Today, the CDs people use for recording fit, at most, 80 minutes of music. Bullocks. I was able to fill a full 90. Making a mixed tape was an all-day affair, with breaks only for lunch and the bathroom. When it was all done, I’d take the tape on a walk and listen to make sure all the songs worked well together. Then I cut up an artsy photo on a postcard and slid it into the case, naming the collection after a song lyric. The listener got to figure out which.
I need to stop for a moment to explain to you that I’m really, really good at this. I’m so good, I can make a boy fall in love with me.
When Mike graduated college, I sat on my childhood bedroom floor and started to put a list together of songs I could send him in his new apartment two hours away. By this time, I had a solid music collection from my frequent stops at the used record store within walking distance from my dorm room. I decided to start off with Echo and the Bunnymen’s “What Are You Going to Do with Your Life?” followed by “Dancing Barefoot,” a cover of Patti Smith. Side B began with Radiohead’s “Stop Whispering” and ended with U2’s “Stay.”
At the time, I told myself I was choosing good songs for someone who just graduated college. I wasn’t trying to get his attention or have him call me. Nooo. I just really wanted to give him a gift. Something cheap (I had no money) but sentimental.
As it turns out, I was also really good at lying to myself. When I look at those songs now, “Dancing Barefoot” represented my own vulnerability; Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” was as much about my feelings as the ones I assumed he would have as he embarked into the real world. “Stop Whispering” might have had something to do with his soft-spoken voice, and Ani Difranco’s “Shy” was a clear admission of my own nature.
I named the album Green Light.
This November, we celebrate eight years of marriage. I’m really glad he called me.
*If you want to learn more about the power of “mix tapes,” read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Here’s a popular excerpt from that book.