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Archive for December, 2009

There’s no telling why a scene from my life sticks with me, but occasionally I see or overhear something that sets its hooks in my memory: visual, emotional, and mental associations all bond together instantly.

When did iPods come out—late 2001? So it must have been January 2003 or 2004. iPods were hot, and expensive, and no longer a novelty. I well remember my daughter’s absolute joy in getting one for Christmas, because she could take it to school and casually show it off. Still a status symbol, not yet the functional part of life that it has become.

I’m standing in the eternal check-out line at the warehouse club I shop at. Waiting, and not really noticing anything. Then I see a young teenage girl and her mother in front of me, and the scene becomes riveting. Even though nothing is happening.

The mother has a plastic display package for an iPod. She’s patiently waiting her turn to hand it to the checkout clerk, who will call over another employee to get an iPod out of the secure storage where they’re safely kept. She looks at her daughter with a combination of “Be patient” motherliness and “Relax, OK?” annoyance. They don’t look very well off, and I imagine that this is a major purchase, not an everyday thing for them. I think they even paid in cash.

The daughter has an amazing tension in her body language: she is simultaneously happy/excited, nervous, self-conscious, and deeply embarrassed that she is dependent on her mother for this moment. But her mother holds the membership card that lets them make the purchase. So she has no choice. The girl is already anticipating a future with an iPod of her own. A real iPod, not one of those cheap knockoff MP3 players. She does that thing that 13-year-olds do, where without looking around she is keenly aware of the potential that someone is looking at her.

We’re a couple weeks past Christmas, so I wonder if she has been saving money, or got some gift money, or what. The timing is a little off—maybe her parents couldn’t afford one for a Christmas gift—but the intent is clear: this girl is getting her ticket to feeling just a little more self-assured at school. She can now slip that iPod into her pocket at the right times, and talk about what songs she has on it. And she can walk down the street with those white earphones just showing in her ears.

Of course I’m reading all this into the scene, but the unforgettable part was the girl’s tension and anticipation: she wasn’t just buying an iPod, she was becoming a new person. Something about her expressions and attempts to hide emotion made it clear that this moment was pivotal. She no longer had to hide the shame of not owning this vital electronic accessory. It was more than just the pleasure of getting a new gift you’ve wanted for months: it was an event.

Oh, the pain we go through in junior high.

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