A couple of years ago, I asked friends and family to make me a mix CD for my birthday, hoping to get 33 mix CDs, one per year I’d lived. I got 59, including some, pleasingly, from strangers. Somewhat predictably, though not unpleasantly, there were a number of Jesus-Year-themed mixes, though fewer Jesus-themed songs. I also put out the call to friends to pass it to anyone they thought might be interested in sending a mix CD. I made it a project to listen actively to each of these mix CDs and to respond by annotating, riffing on, and responding to the selections, and sending a note with my response to the mix-maker, or I suppose we should call her an arranger, since therein is the art of the mix.
The idea I had about this was that the collective mix CDs would somehow represent the network of friends and family I was in close contact with—or close enough. I thought I’d be able to divine something about myself from how others viewed me, what they thought the best approach was to making the mix, whether they used the mix as an opportunity to impress, to educate, to colonize, to woo, to irritate, to posture, to stake out some emotional territory between us. I’d done all these things in the past, usually with an emphasis on woo. I’d made hundreds, I’d guess, maybe a thousand, though I’m not obsessive enough to have kept track of all of them—their recipients, the occasion for the mix, the strategies I employed, if any, and the tracklists over the years. Whether an individual mix meant anything was hard to say, but it would be tough to avoid making some conclusions about the first third (I hope) of my life from the aggregate information contained on these compact discs.
One disc arrived cracked, so only the first few tracks were playable. Another mix, this one pie-themed, arrived so broken that only the tracklist was readable. Another was virtual, a ghost mix, a list of the worst 33 songs in her iTunes library without any actual music to inflict said songs on me. One was all songs written and recorded when the artist in question was 33. One, also impressively, was only songs released in 1933. The length of one disc added up to exactly 33 minutes and 33 seconds. My brother sent me, in lieu of a mix, a box set of Americana from Rhino, which says quite a bit about our relationship. Another mix consisted of songs that I had never heard before. One, maybe the most meaningful in the way mixes can be, collected songs by bands that the mixer and I had seen in concert together. Perhaps in a bid to piss me off, several featured “Sweet Home Alabama.” More than one included a Bon Jovi song. I am not sure why.
Then one mix CD was not a CD at all. It arrived in a regular business-sized envelope. It was a microcassette without a case. Sent in an unpadded envelope, it, too, arrived broken. I filed it on my shelf with the others. It did not fit in the box with the others because the box was designed for CDs. The envelope it arrived in was a plain business envelope, you know the sort, designed for holding a letter-sized sheet of paper folded in three parts. It had no return address. Addressed to me with a barely-readable postmark from Nebraska City, Nebraska, the tape was an enigma. Did it have anything to do with the mix CD project? I did not know. It was broken and unplayable. As I listened to the other mix CDs and wrote about them, or in response to them, I thought more about what might be on the broken tape. I filled the room with thought. I paid attention to the songs on the listenable discs and tried to correlate them with my relationship with the person who made the mix. My head was elsewhere as I contemplated the moonlit limbs of the sumacs visible from my office window, the invisible network of roots converging at the base of the trees, and waited for snow to come.
Nebraska City, Nebraska, is the official home of Arbor Day, the last Friday in April (in most states—sometimes differing climates lead to different dates), a “day to celebrate trees,” according to the Arbor Day Foundation website. You’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve celebrated it. I’d guess that only a few of us, though, have revered it. Founded in 1872 by Julius Sterling Morton, a journalist and politician originally from Michigan, Arbor Day is surely the least sexy national holiday. (It is a postal holiday, but only in Nebraska.) While it’s odd to think about the burnt, windswept prairie of Nebraska as the birth of the day of tree celebration, Nebraska Citians are pretty serious about Arbor Day.
From what I can see of it (which, thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, is extensive in a way that would not have been possible even a decade ago), Nebraska City, Nebraska, appears undistinguished. Just south of I-29’s intersection with I-80, it has the usual stuff of American towns: golf courses, churches, monuments, Super 8 motels, a hospital, townhomes, Buick LeSabres, football, insurance agents, a sewing store, a mostly abandoned downtown, quilts, sadness, pretty girls, fields and fields, a factory outlet store, one or two Chinese restaurants, a Mexican restaurant with wack burritos, the smell of farms, a Friends of Faith Thrift Shop, scattered signs of both doom and joy. When you start to look at what distinguishes cities from each other, particularly in the American Midwest, it’s pretty easy to despair of our culture for its portability, its replicability, its easy genericism.
Nebraska City, Nebraska, is one of those State Name City cities that feel peculiarly American and complicate schoolchildren’s memorization of the states and their capitols: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, may be the capital city of Oklahoma, but Iowa City is no longer the capital city of Iowa (as of 1857). You’ve probably never even heard of Ohio City, Ohio, or Minnesota City, Minnesota, for good reason. I’d reckon about half the states have a State Name City, and a few have cities named after other states, often straddling state lines. As such, Nebraska City, Nebraska, could be—though it is not, except maybe in a few lonely dreams—the center of the center of the country.
The Midwest is an odd place when you look at it closely enough, though it gets caricatured as Norman Rockwellville, a place of the safe and boring, hard work, religion, football, “family values”—whatever they are. My experience with the Midwest belies these broad brushstrokes: most of the Midwest is much stranger, darker, more hollow, anger- and treasure-filled. You find serious evidence of weirdness in the abandoned factory steam towers and knockoff Dairy Queen—called Kastle Kreme—in Galesburg, Illinois (they’ll make a blizzard out of anything you bring in, including salted pork), or the closed Blue Bird School Bus assembly plant in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Zeeland, Michigan, has the highest incest rate in the state. You find the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine in a small town: Darwin, Minnesota. Another contender for the crown is in Cawker City, Kansas, with at least one more in Wisconsin and inevitably one in the weirdest town in the greater Midwest: Branson, Missouri. Looking closer at Nebraska City, you learn that it is the oldest incorporated city in Nebraska and has the only Underground Railroad site in the state. Then there’s the legacy of Morton’s Arbor Day—thousands of trees lining the streets of Nebraska City, thousands of saplings in kids’ hands about to be planted; or maybe those are metaphors: the hands, the kids, the trees, Nebraska City.
Strange enough on the ground, then, but from the air it must seem like the least identifiable city in one of the least identifiable states, identifiable only in its display of absence, the sort of place where someone mysterious might hide and send out strange microcassettes or bombs.
Every move across the country, and every visit, if it’s a good one, if you pay attention: these force you to recalibrate your sense of place and what you thought the place might be or mean. When I moved to Tucson, Arizona, a couple years later, I was surprised by just how green it was, belying the broad brushstrokes that “Tucson, Arizona,” brings to mind. My vision/version of the place was of the flat, swaled infinity that you might see in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I lived briefly as a teenager, or in the Sahara, where much of my consciousness of what <em>desert</em> means was born. Not much grew in the desert around Riyadh. But the part of the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson (a valley city, surrounded by mountain ranges) is comparatively speaking a celebration of the tree, particularly the Martian green-skinned paloverde, Arizona’s unreal and prickly state tree. And Tucson isn’t technically in a desert at all: the area gets enough rain (12 inches a year most years, though a little less in the last decade’s ongoing drought) to be considered only semi-arid. Landscapes are filled with the famous saguaro cacti that only grows in the Sonora, the green spray of blooming ocotillos, a dozen different palms, yucca, mesquites, and thousands of fruit trees bushing out of backyards throughout the city, to say nothing of the other hundred succulents and varieties of cacti, though like many of Tucson’s denizens, both flora and fauna, many are hardly native to the region.
I found the fruit trees particularly fascinating, since the orange trees spectacularly line the Third Street Bike Path that dead-ends into the campus of the university where I teach. Being from Michigan, and spending much of my life in the cold realms, I fetishized fruit trees, fetishized cacti, images from vacation postcards, television, and deep winter dreams. Fruit trees especially were tied directly into the myths of California and Florida, Disneyland and Disney World, twin visions of escape from the endless snowbound heart of Upper Michigan.
Like many orange trees planted on public property, the Third Street trees produce oranges that are incredibly bitter. They offer only visual sustenance—glossy nests of leaves cradle orange orbs. When they fruit, they become more of a nuisance than anything else, dropping inedible oranges that rot in the street and taunt hungry students and passersby who fetishize fruit globes.
I have a problem with inedible things—particularly soaps and bath products, though the sour oranges qualify—that smell or look like something edible. If sufficiently hungry, I will disregard sense and eat them, or try to, and spit out a mouthful of soapy chemical mess or too-sour fruit. I am no smarter with age. Biking down that street, I’ve been tempted. Too often, desire is a more powerful force than restraint.
At the request of a pair of conventionally rather attractive Alabama sorority girls, the Scottish indie rock band Belle and Sebastian once covered “Sweet Home Alabama” at a concert I attended in Atlanta. It was a glorious, if ill-fated collision, the sort you look for in a cover situation. After all, Belle and Sebastian was a famously shy and media-elusive band in its youth, so the prospect of them inviting requests for covers was a funny surprise. I was shocked that the guitarist knew the riff at all, though the band didn’t know all the lyrics. Said sorority girls were pulled up on stage to sing.
University of Alabama alums know that the proper way to sing the song is with a “Roll, Tide, Roll” inserted like a virus in the chorus. As a northerner in the South, you understand quickly that this song is important to Southerners, particularly Alabamans, partly for its famous fuck-off to the Canadian Neil Young, “Southern man don’t need him around.”
By the time I heard it covered in Atlanta, the song had lost whatever meaning it might have once had for me as a result of sheer oversaturation. But I listened hard to all the mix CDs. Doing so, I found that I don’t really listen very often to songs anymore. Perhaps it’s a product of the mp3 age in which we trade off fidelity for convenience, the immersive and social experience of the album for the portability, downloadability, and immediacy of the digital single, but whether we love songs, hate songs, or disregard them, more typically when we press play, we press play on our memory of the song or what it represents, how it makes us feel, who we were when we first heard it or made it part of our lives. We don’t listen to the song itself. (Well, we’re never listening to anything itself, without consideration of context, genre, history, personal experience, and so on, but that road leads to a neurotic infinity.) Instead, I found that when I actually listened to it, “Sweet Home Alabama” is actually a pretty catchy song. This raises uncomfortable questions about what my taste in music actually means, but I can’t think about that too hard, too often, if I want to maintain any sense of what self means.
This last year tornadoes destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, including both of the places I lived in when I was in grad school there: an apartment complex named, in an attempt to ape the patrician South, Charleston Square, and a house situated about five miles distant on a street called Cedar Crest, though there were no cedars anywhere in sight. I remember seeing the damage on television, trying to reconcile the images in the media with my memory of the place. What corner is that, I asked myself—only to realize, holy shit, that was the street on which I lived: and it was entirely wiped out in a mile-wide stripe, just erased, like magnetic tape. You could tell it was Cedar Crest by the railroad tracks, the decimated Krispy Kreme, and the few remaining individual trees, which are numerous and often very old.
Tuscaloosa has long been called the “Druid City,” for the preponderance of water oaks lining its many leafy streets, and my memory of entering the South for the first time was largely one of being engulfed in tree, in near-total forestation, surprisingly similar to my home in Michigan, with echoes of Deliverance and red dirt everywhere.
A couple months before the tornado, an Alabama football fan was arrested for poisoning a stand of 130-year-old oak trees 160 miles away in Auburn, Alabama, commonly called Toomer’s Corner. These oaks are among the oldest of Auburn’s trees. There are 8,236 on the campus. According to tradition, fans would festoon the oaks with toilet paper after important football victories.
Alabama and Auburn have a longstanding and especially bitter rivalry, but the poisoning of the trees by 62-year-old former state trooper Harvey A. Updyke, Jr., is certainly a new low. Evidently he had problems with mental illness, though you could argue that the degree of obsession that hardcore Alabama fans often exhibit borders on crazy. Rarely do you get a sense of restraint overriding desire when it comes to Alabama football.
Updyke used a powerful herbicide called Spike 80DF—“80 percent tebuthiuron (the active ingredient) and 20 percent inert ingredients,”—according to a Huffington Post news article on the subject, farmed certainly from some other website in the way of modern aggregated media. The same article suggests the herbicide “kills from the roots up.” As a result, it might take years for the stand of oaks to die as they shed, regrow, and re-shed their leaves like past lives, past iterations of selves suggested by mixtape tracklists and embarrassing letters written to girls we yearned for. It’s not yet fully certain whether they will live or die, but the prognosis for the trees is not good.
The prognosis for my old neighborhood is worse: it’s since been bulldozed, the rubble and uprooted parts of trees removed, along with the few remaining halves of houses and the graves of the many stray cats my wife and I fed and tried to save. You can only do so much. The roots of my memories there are now erased entirely, along with the house next door to ours that (we were informed by an obsessive football fan who came to our house to take photographs) once housed football star Joe Namath.
According to the July 7, 1936, issue of The Toledo News, comedian Hugh Herbert was the first inventor of a particular mixtape of a tree, the “fruit-salad tree”: “[he] is developing a horticultural marvel to be known as a fruit-salad tree, or Herbert’s Folly. On a grapefruit tree his [sic] has grafted oranges, avocados, peaches, apples, plums, and walnuts.” Two months later, The Christian Science Monitor ran an article about McKee Jungle Gardens, almost two hours southeast of Orlando, in Vero Beach, Florida (now McKee Botanical Garden), that had a fruit-salad tree of its own (“the Mexican salad fruit tree . . . pineapple, strawberries, and bananas combined”).
These Frankentrees are made by grafting parts of different trees onto one trunk in order to maximize the variety of fruit grown on the one tree, and also for novelty or entertainment. Contrary to The Toledo News, these fruit-salad trees, also called fruit-cocktail trees, probably predate 1936, since the technique of grafting branches tree-on-tree has been around since antiquity, and someone surely had the idea before 1936. Circa 300 B.C.E., for instance, amateur botanist Theophrastus writes, in “De Causis Plantarum,” that “It is also reasonable that trees so grafted should bear finer fruit.” He goes on to explain the technique of grafting in detail. Much of his discourse in “Propagation in Another Tree: Grafting” could more or less be copy-and-pasted directly into any contemporary manual on the subject, since the techniques have not changed much. It’s hard to believe that, as an experimental botanist, he or his contemporaries wouldn’t have mixed multiple fruits on one tree.
By this time pretty much all of our domesticated trees, particularly citrus, are hybrids, only reliably reproducible via grafting. All fruit trees are Frankentrees. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the fruit-salad tree would later be developed by the University of California at Riverside, and more recently commercially popularized by The Fruit Salad Tree Company out of Emmasville, Australia, which distributes four fruit-salad tree varieties (Stone Fruit, Citrus Fruit, Multi-Apples, and Multi-Nashis—Japanese pears) that are ready to plant, tend, and fruit.
A mysterious and unmarked tape arrives…straight out of a noir novel.
Was it a message? Was it from a stalker? A crazy Alabama football fan? A former lover? A family member?
I asked the most likely suspects. Then I asked everyone I knew.
No one claimed responsibility.
The actual magnetic tape was not broken, though its casing was. I headed to Radio Shack to procure some new microcassettes in hopes of nerdily dismantling the broken casing and rethreading the old tape through an unbroken case. None of them turned out to be openable without some mystic wizard moves.
A couple months went by. I thought about other things, worked on other things, as I do. Watched the trees out my window lose their leaves and wind down, spectral, for winter. I thought more about it. The hacker in me said I had to fix the tape myself. The reasonable person just said, eh, forget it. But I couldn’t just forget it. Eventually I sent it out to a specialty audio restoration company that fixed the tape, burned it to a CD, and mailed it back.
It sat in its package on my desk. Should I listen to it, I wondered? What if the mystery disappointed me, and it was just some heavy breathing? (Actually I’d take heavy breathing. It could connote anything.)
When I think of mystery, I think of the Paulding Light, the most famous unexplained phenomenon of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At one point, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who could definitively explain the Light. It was even featured on an episode of Robert Stack’s redundantly named television show, Unsolved Mysteries, and a more recent SyFy network show.
The Paulding Light is in the Ottawa National Forest, south of Bruce Crossing, about an hour and a half from the town where I grew up and in which my parents live. Driving south, it’s off an old mining road on the right of US 45, a couple miles before you get to Watersmeet. You drive in at night and park where the other cars are, among millions of towering pines. Most nights there will be a dozen or more people sitting on the hoods of their cars, often with binoculars or telescopes looking north at a series of lights that emerge, slowly move down a hill, and disappear. The locals have stories of these balls of light getting within a hundred feet of the viewers, floating, moving, changing colors, spinning, and splitting up. The official U.S. Forest Service sign (adorned helpfully, surely unofficially, with an illustration of Casper the Friendly Ghost) reads as follows:
This is the location from which the famous Paulding Light can be observed. Legend explains its presence as a railroad brakeman’s ghost, destined to remain forever at the sight [sic] of his untimely death. He continually waves his signal lantern as a warning to all who come to visit. To observe the phenomenon, park along this forest road facing North. The light will appear each evening in the distance along the power line right-of-way. Remember, other people will be visiting this location. Please do not litter.
In a place adorned with a long history of suffering (the miners, mostly, and the families of miners, many of whom died in the mines or in related accidents, or in the Italian Mining Hall disaster of 1909, and the Ojibwa before them who suffered in ways all too familiar to students of American history), the Paulding Light is a cryptic and appealing experience with a speculative and storied past. Though there have been several scientific explanations offered for the Light, including some sort of power phenomenon involving the electrical lines, swamp gas, headlights on a highway, and so on. Though several other television shows and paranormal investigators and experts have been deployed to investigate the Lights, most have concluded that the phenomenon remains unexplained. In 2010, a group of Michigan Tech University optics students claimed (with a good claim to fact) that they had proved that the Light was a result of headlights in the distance. I have my doubts. It’s not just that I love the mystery of it, but that, after having experienced the Light myself on several occasions, the optics explanation doesn’t fully track. Or perhaps I just resist its attempt at closure. The roots of a mystery like this run deep.
Was it worth $40 to get the broken microcassette fixed? It turns out the answer is yes, if only to know. It is always worth $40 to know. That’s what makes me a crap poker player. I want to see everyone’s cards, to see the flop, the turn, the river, to see how it turns out. And in poker you have to pay to find out. And I almost always pay to find out. Now you know.
So. I popped it in and gave it a listen. It appeared to be a recording from the judge’s microphone in a murder trial set in Upper Michigan. There is no real identifying information beyond the names of the attorneys (Mr. Biegler and Mr. Dancer; there is also apparently a Mr. McCarthy who is mentioned) and the fact that the original judge on the case, a Judge Maitland, was taken ill, and the new judge was from Lower Michigan. There are references to this being a sensational trial. Here is an excerpt from my transcription:
I come here on assignment from Lower Michigan to sit in place of your own Judge Maitland, who is recovering from illness. Now I have no desire to upset the folkways or traditions of this community during murder trials or whatever they may be. I had not realized that there were so many among you who were such zealous students of homicide. In any case I must remind you that this is a court of law and not a football game or a prize fight.
Beyond this there are the judge’s exhortations to the attorneys and the gallery to quiet down, to act more civilly; a couple rulings on objections and witness testimony; and a congratulations to the prosecutor on a particularly spectacular prosecution: “this is the first time in my legal career that I have seen a dead man successfully prosecuted for rape.” The actual prosecution, the actual witness testimony, the actual objections—in short, any voice aside from the judge’s—is not in evidence. There are only short silences during the spaces where other people apparently responded, indicating that this is an edited version with the long silences and other voices removed. I didn’t know what to make of it. It felt like there was a decent chance that this was a recording from the courtroom of the murder trial on which I based some of my first book. Strange. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, I thought, making everything about myself.
A damaged tape. An audio recording of a section of an Upper Michigan murder trial. The trial, the trail—they both appear to end here.
Then there is more: “I suggest that both of you gentlemen invoke a little silence and let the witness answer. In fact I order you to.”
“I’m going to take the answer.”
“Take the answer.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen. There has been a question and an objection. And I must make a ruling, which I cannot do if you keep up this unholy wrangling. We are skating on thin ice, I realize. But in all conscience, I cannot rule if the question is objectionable. Counsel is not asking for the results of any polygraph test, but the opinion of the witness based upon certain knowledge possessed by him. Take the answer.”
You want to give it a listen? The mp3 is on my website at otherelectricities.com/vp/mix.html.
It’s pretty freaky, actually, when you just listen to it, not knowing what it is. Turn the lights out. Look out the window at the canopy of whatever deciduous tree you see and the moon rising spookily through its bare wintry branches. Make sure no one is paying attention to you.
I listened to it over and over, filling the silent hisses with speculation.
So I spent a couple hours trying to look up information on the murder trial of the man who killed my high-school acquaintance, just to see if this was it. I found very little. Having taken place before the explosion of the web, there’s almost nothing online about it. I wonder whether the trial transcripts are public record, whether they’re available for researchers? The court transcriptionist surely did her (I’ve never seen a male transcriptionist, but they must exist) job for a reason. Surely these transcripts are open at least to lawyers who might want to prepare an appeal, or something. I resolved to find out more about this, then promptly forgot about my resolution.
The roots of the tree that should, in nature, grow the sweet oranges that most of us enjoy eating or juicing are susceptible to a bark-destroying virus. The roots of the sour orange tree, however, resist the virus. So in Texas or Florida, for instance, growers graft sweet orange branches—scions—onto the trunks/roots—understock—of sour orange trees for protection. Further north orange scions are usually grafted onto rough lemon understock for a similar result. Oranges are now so hybridized that the seeds of a given orange will usually not grow the same kind of orange tree if planted.
For those of us who fetishize the tree as the epitome of natural, understanding that the modern citrus is essentially a remix, a cut-and-paste job, comes as a bit of a surprise. There’s not a whole lot natural about domesticated anything anymore, which is one reason why “natural” on food packaging doesn’t usually denote very much. (Neither the USDA nor the FDA has rules for what “natural” may or may not refer to.) Like most of us who eat, I don’t spend much time close up with my food, and certainly not fruit trees, and haven’t bothered to investigate the joints where the understock meets the scion.
It is not particularly difficult to make your own fruit-salad tree if you’re adept at grafting. Though it does take a lot of care and careful pruning, since fruits mature and fruit at different rates and times, and you risk having one fruit take over your tree or become too heavy, unbalancing your tree and bringing it down.
The term for grafting scions on the understock of a different tree is topworking.
Maybe six hours later, after feeling entirely engaged in the mystery, I figured out what might already be obvious to you, what would be obvious to denizens of Upper Michigan (or aficionados of film or murder mysteries) of a certain age—that the microcassette recording is in fact a greatly condensed and edited version of the audio from the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder.
It took me a while to get there. My wife suggested that there’s no way anyone was recording the trial from the inside. True, I thought. It’s suspiciously articulate, and I didn’t hear the accents and Canadianisms, the yas, the trills of ehs and dropped prepositions that usually signify the Upper Michigander, or as we call ourselves, the Yooper. And the more I thought of some of the lines, the more they sounded like written dialogue. At that point, I had not yet seen the film, though the book on which it is based is set in Upper Michigan and is probably the most famous rendering of my peninsula, if you don’t count the crappy Ben Affleck heist movie Reindeer Games.
And with that revelation, the door slammed closed, one part of the mystery solved. But then: why only selections from the replacement judge character’s comments?
And why unmarked? Why a microcassette? Why from Nebraska City, Nebraska?
And who sent it?
Where I am from there are a lot of unexplained things: that Paulding Light, the Mining Hall Disaster, the strange phenomenon of paradoxical undressing, crimes unsolved, disappearing girls, unresolved deaths. In a relatively remote place like my part of Michigan you learn to live with the fact that not everything is understandable. That’s part of the irreducible mystery of the state, itself obscured much of the year by weather of one sort or another.
Much is obscured by trees and snow on trees, falling to cover over our tracks as we set out for a winter ramble among the fallen trees, the rabbit tracks on snow, the marks that suggest the occasional wolf or moose had come through here just before or after us. Some of it is clouded by history or the passing of time; some is erased by willful obfuscation. The speculation we engage in to get at the roots of those stories and selves now lost to history is memory topworking.
My favorite mixtape I ever found, which I no longer own, sadly, because it was lost in a move, was a mixtape created by a guy I don’t know for a girl I don’t know. It was staged as a radio show, with commercials and bits and jingles that the guy improvised himself, using different voices, between the songs. It was an impressive gesture, clearly scripted and rehearsed, technically very sophisticated. Since I found it at the decrepit St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it must not have been sufficiently beloved by the recipient. Or possibly the recipient died. Or was killed. Or maybe it was never sent—the gesture discarded in a moment of hesitation and second-guessing, a sweet, powerful regret that most of us know all too well. Or perhaps it was well-loved at the time and was only later discarded as she forgot about the he, or didn’t care, or maybe got rid of her tape player and either committed it to digital format, or more likely didn’t, that’s the feeling I got, perhaps because the mixtape seemed a little excessive, by which I mean obsessive, which is the way that all mix tapes are if you’re serious about making them. As a social ritual it’s still a lovely but strange one, and it’s not always welcome, as you find out if you’ve made enough mixtapes, or if you’ve misread the social cues preceding the presentation of the mixtape, which you might have done because you were concentrating so hard on the mixtape you were making.
Though I use the terms mixtape and mix CD interchangeably, I probably shouldn’t, since the technologies are so different. The track-by-track skippability that the CD brought us, along with its futuristic laser shimmer and Sharpied CD title, differentiates it from the mixtape, which required much more work to produce: you had to do it manually, cuing and taping each song from the other source, being careful about song times, splicing here and there, adjusting intros and gaps, taping over things so that occasionally you got a little history of your magnetic tape poking through the hiss that signified silence.
Erasing an analog object like a mixtape is never a full erasure.
With the CD, an actual silence—a digital zero—can be achieved. We give up the two-sidedness of the mixtape; we give up the physical act of having to flip the tape and press play. We give up occasionally having to wind or rewind the tape manually when the tape gets messed up. We forget these things in our desire for the convenient format of the CD, which is, of course, on the wane now, too, in favor of the (frankly superior, let’s be honest) format of the mp3, where the music has little to any physical presence at all. It’s not a shock to see the CD discarded. I’ve thrown away so many burns I’ve made because they don’t last, either, not more than a few years, often even when they’ve not been scratched up or used accidentally as coasters. Finding someone else’s mix CD in the thrift store or on the street, or even receiving one, still gives me a thrill, but it’s not quite the same as the weird analog and homemade intimacy of the mix tape with the handwritten track list.
Thus the mixtape is a particular devotion offered not just to the recipient of the mixtape, but also to the technology itself, an offering from and to the double tape deck itself, and to posterity. I often made copies of the mixtapes I made for friends because I liked them so much. They’re abandoned now, rashly, probably, after I decided that my CDs were the future, which have now been replaced by my return to vinyl and the ethereal format of the mp3. I think of those tapes sometimes, given to the trash for future dumpster divers or anthropologists to sort through. They’ve been donated, too, to Salvation Armies, Goodwills, Alabama Thrift Stores, St. Vincent de Pauls, the White Elephant in Green Valley, AZ, Lutheran Thrift, Deseret Industries Thrift, Humane Society Thrift, 22nd Street Thrift Store, Casa de los Niños, Miracle Center Thrift, flea markets, and installed in various libraries around the country. Perhaps one ended up in the Nebraska City, Nebraska, Friends of Faith Thrift Store, on Central Avenue, just across the street from the Otoe County Courthouse, between L. Brown Cabinetry and an Allstate insurance office, where my tape might be speaking to someone else this very moment, perhaps even you, reader.
Making mix CDs then is thus a kind of long play for the future, but also a convenient fudge, a topworking of one technology on top of the techniques implied in and learned by dabbling with the other.
One of the reasons I love shopping in thrift stores is the history, the happenstance of it. Many things at thrift stores are messages placed in bottles for whomever to find, whether or not the giver or recipient know it. Maybe you can call it providence. There are plenty of ecological and economic reasons to shop secondhand also, but I’m in it for the surprise.
What do we leave the world? What marks do we leave in snow among the trees? What magnetic trace do we erase or tape over? Which tapes are spared the magnet or the scissors or the heel of the boot? What books have we written? What websites have we created? Will anyone read the crappy poems we posted on rec.arts.poetry in the early days of the Internet, or will they persist as ghosts, the not-checked-out-for-decades copies of obsolete research on metallurgy I page through in the university engineering library before they’re on their way to storage and probable discard or pulp? What music offerings have we left, hopefully, our faces lit with hope, with expectation, for potential lovers or friends, or in some cases perfect strangers? What have we grafted onto what rootstock; what have we planted for some future resident of this space to enjoy? What have we plastered up in the walls of our old houses that we remodeled? What scrawls in wet concrete sidewalks of our old neighborhood? What initials have we paired our own with, cut in hearts on bark of the biggest trees out back of the school? Does our thinking of the future imply that we believe in a future after the world has heated, combusted, blown up, forced our civilization off it? Have we left answers, or will we leave questions?
Coda: Three years later I figure out the second big question, who you are, mixtape sender, mysterious stranger, crypto–Upper Peninsulan, old friend. Chatting, our housesitter mentions that she was at a writing residency last year in Nebraska City, Nebraska. A small door opens in my brain.
I inquire. It turns out there’s an artist/writer residency there, the Kimmel Harding Residency. A residency? In Nebraska City, Nebraska, home of Arbor Day? Yes, a residency. They have a list online of their previous residents along with their dates of residency. I scan the names. It has to be someone there on a residency. That makes so much sense. You do strange things on residencies. Hide things in public spaces. Conduct interventionist art. Post random projects to friends anonymously. When you limit your inputs like you often do at a residency, you start to generate more unusual outputs. See also Oulipo. (See also the essay “Space” on my website otherelectricities.com under Vanishing Point.) You want to have a personal conversation with others who have shared the space, or who will occupy the space after you.
I know a lot of the names. I don’t know what that says about me. But one in particular catches my eye, and the dates line up, and that last big question of the mystery is solved (a few of the smaller ones continue on, like a grace note ghost). Of course my friend from Alabama, Alicia, is the culprit. Well played, Alicia.
I’m in Tucson when I figure it out at last, contemplating the sound of wind through the windmill palms that tower with the ocotillo in my front yard. It’s a lovely sound, one that you just don’t get in the north. I love the sound of wind through pines too, or the rustling of the maples, oaks, and poplar in the fall as they go brilliant and lose their leaves, suggesting the approach of winter. But the palms have a peculiar beauty. They don’t need much. You don’t want to water your palm, since the roots will rot. They’re designed to catch and hold their water in the crown of sharp leaves, where the heart of palm resides, rising with each year’s new growth. Trying to transplant a small palm from my backyard to my plant-obsessed friend Jon’s makeshift Japanese garden, we had to cut its rootball away from its wide network of roots. In this part of the Sonoran desert, plants’ roots spread wide, not deep, because of the caliche, a superhardened clay that’s everywhere a foot or two beneath the surface—so transplanting saguaro cacti, for instance, is nigh impossible.
Pulling it out we drew blood, too, since everything in the desert is sharp, thorned, serrated, spined, resistant to meddling. We left a little of our analog selves in the space left after we got it out. After a year, the palm died in his yard. We’re still not sure why. He will presumably pull it up and replace it with something native and gorgeous and complicated, since that’s his wont. The memory of those new roots, those old roots, will be gradually erased.
It’s bittersweet, I suppose, to close this open door of mystery, but more sweet than sour, as I am the agent of the solution, lucky in my stumble. The world offers so few of these rewards for our attention that we best take them when they’re offered, before they disappear back into the trash, the sidewalks filled with other rotting oranges, the thrift store, the lumber pile that might get pulped to paper in Wisconsin, on which we might write or rewrite history, the whiteness of blizzard or memory. I’m going to take the answer.
Ander Monson (otherelectricities.com) is the author of six books, three of nonfiction ("Neck Deep and Other Predicaments," "Vanishing Point," and "Letter to a Future Lover"), two poetry collections ("Vacationland" and "The Available World"), and a novel, "Other Electricities." A finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award for "Other Electricities" and a NBCC in criticism for "Vanishing Point," he is also a recipient of a number of other prizes, including a Howard Foundation Fellowship, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award in Nonfiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM (thediagram.com), the New Michigan Press, Essay Daily (essaydaily.org), and a series of yearly literary/music tournaments. He directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona.
"The Exhibit Will Be So Marked" was originally published in The Normal School's print magazine (Vol. 5, Issue 1).