By Sam Rauer
I remember him hunched in front of the desktop computer in jeans and a baby blue ribbed merino wool sweater with a V-neck – the one I’d helped him select at the Gap. Eyes solemn, mouth resting in a quiet line.
“My sister had our dad put together her wedding playlist,” I told two engaged friends recently, calling this image to mind.
“I can’t imagine doing that now,” I added, as they nodded in agreement, going on to explain the delicate intricacies of reception music. For couples who choose to traditionally marry, the music that’s played at the party is one signature of their own taste. Who would entrust that to a parent?
My dad’s home office at the time was in my sister’s bedroom, abandoned since she left home for college. Rose patterned wallpaper still plastered the walls and the white carpet was spotless. It was a few years before I would move downstairs and paint the room blue, wreak havoc, and leave Diet Coke stains and thumbtack holes in my wake.
CD cases would have littered my sister’s old bedroom in messy stacks, waiting to be catalogued. Our house always overflowed with my dad’s albums, but as our cabinets ran out of space, he began the ongoing project of organizing discs into enormous CaseLogic storage binders, organized alphabetically and by genre. I can still hear the sound of plastic clicking as he flipped through an open drawer of jewel cases like a teenager at the record store.
My sister married her husband in 1999, before Spotify, Napster, or portable mp3 players. The first generation iPod was released two years after her wedding in 2001. The act of putting together her wedding playlist must have been as much technical as it was aesthetic or sentimental.
The summer leading up to her wedding, she moved back to Seattle and hummed around our house making phone calls, menu planning, and hand-calligraphing place setting cards at the dining room table. Enlisting our father to create the playlist was partly a money saving tactic. Weddings can be expensive, and my sister was on a budget, doing most of the preparation herself.
Our dad, for his part, took his gig seriously. The playlist involved laser printed inserts and carefully labeled desktop folders, containing songs ripped and burned from his personal music collection. He first copied all of his CDs onto the computer, then arranged selected tracks into separate files, and finally burned them onto blank CDs that he dutifully numbered. Countless hours were spent slouched in front of the computer screen, the black foam of his headphones adjusted tight.
By day, my father worked in an office designing satellites and airplanes, and during his off-hours, he occupied himself with projects. He taught himself how to code from an Idiot’s Guide To, and then developed a software program that converted pounds to grams and feet to meters. He sold it online, in the days before you could ask Siri to do math for you. He labored over tiny model cars, submitted short stories to Reader’s Digest, and hand-quilted pillows, which he listed out of a personal Etsy shop. There was also his songwriter period, when he attended a music industry conference in Los Angeles and talked about meeting a musician who wrote for Miley Cyrus. That summer, he wore a lot of Hawaiian themed graphic tees and grew a mustache.
Because he has jet black hair and tan, olive skin, I used to fantasize that I was my father’s biological daughter, not his adopted Korean one. A girl in my second grade class was half-Asian and everyone commented on her green eyes and how she resembled both of her parents. I wanted to look like someone, too. I didn’t think there was any overlap with my mother, whom I argued with incessantly, but I studied photographs of my father and searched for similarities.
“Da-aad!” I’d shout at him in the produce section, looking around to see if anyone gave us funny looks. Sometimes people did, and I’d stare back, daring them to keep looking. But if I didn’t get a reaction, I’d be satisfied that we looked related and skip down the aisle next to our shopping cart.
When I was in middle school, we commuted together every morning, him to his cubicle and me to Holy Rosary Catholic School. He drove for thirty minutes, through the famously smelly Puget Sound aroma, just to drop me off in Tacoma, before getting on the Seattle-bound I-5 to head north to work. I munched on supermarket donuts and sipped hot chocolate in the passenger seat, cycling through anxieties about upcoming exams and what to wear to Lara Walpole’s Halloween party. We took turns picking out music, and Rubber Soul, the sixth Beatles album, was one of his favorites. We listened to it quietly, passing by grey scenery of early morning fog and chilly water.
I remember when playlists were given as a gift, a deadly serious matter, intended for one person’s listening only. I miss the innocence and private intimacy of making those mix CDs – of creating things for a single-human audience or for the pure enjoyment (or torture) of making them. A project with a strictly personal purpose, a wishful permanence attached to the final product.
My freshman year of high school, a sophomore with a car and frosted tips made me a CD with the Dashboard Confessional and Ja Rule songs I’d specifically requested, taking the creative liberty to also add Eminem. It was thrilling to be able to listen to “Always On Time” on repeat, and I eventually memorized the order of every track, skipping the songs I didn’t like with the natural reflex of a familiar lover. When Frosted Tips and I went to Homecoming later that year, he had an allergic reaction to shellfish at dinner and we never talked again.
I burned my own CDs of painfully curated playlists, not for boys, but for my best friend Emily, who had a five-disc stereo system in her car. I scrawled the track list in Sharpie on the disc in a spiral, each song separated by an asterisk star. There was the process of illegally acquiring every song that I wanted to include, and the frustration of downloads that would never fully finish, forever frozen at 96% complete with a red error bar.
Emily and I were of the right age and right sensitivity for third wave emo, that regrettable phase of tight scenester jeans and MySpace hair. Our mix CDs for each other featured many men singing about drunk sex or the girls they loved burning to death in a car crash. It was a terrible time to be young and in your feelings.
I can still see Emily smacking Spearmint Trident gum while we hurtle down dark, gravel roads we know like the backs of our hands. We sewed pirate skull patches on the butt pockets of our jean shorts, endured screamo, and swore to become flight attendants if we weren’t already successful by twenty-five. I lost control in the pouring rain once, my car spinning around twice before the steering wheel steadied in my hands, some long forgotten Fueled by Ramen or Triple Crown Records band still vibrating through the speakers.
I was living in Boston for law school when one of my dad’s songs, called “Tortured Love”, got picked up for a female country singer’s demo and was made available online. “It’s about your mother,” he said, much to everyone’s embarrassment. My sister gave him a notebook to write lyrics in that Christmas. It was one of the last gifts unwrapped over scrambled eggs and cinnamon rolls, cartoon music notes dancing across the cover.
When my parents visited the east coast for my law school graduation, my dad was an underground campus celebrity. I’d acted as his personal one-daughter street team, sending the song link to everyone I knew and bragging about his creative talents. “He’s friends with a songwriter who writes for Miley Cyrus!” I told my friends, who had become members of my dad’s fan club. “I think I get my love of music from him,” I added, while they rolled their eyes.
Track eight of Rubber Soul, “In My Life”, is a popular wedding song, often played for a first dance or slideshow of baby photos. Lennon said that he wrote the draft lyrics on a bus ride home, after being inspired to write about his childhood. It’s about romantic love, but it’s also an ode to nostalgia:
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
I have an indistinct attachment to the opening notes, an association of them with some hazy, unplaceable memory. It’s a song that, for me, invokes the addictive ache of nostalgia more than any one real person or event. My dad loves the shit out of that song, and so do I.
My sister’s wedding took place in late August at a white chapel in Northern California, situated at the end of a hilly, seaside road. The smell of the ocean drifted into our car as we drove there, blending with the fragrance of freshly laundered formal wear and perfume. The wedding was small, tasteful, and DIY. The evening before the ceremony, my sister prepared the hors d-oeuvre herself in her fiancé’s childhood kitchen.
At the reception, my brother-in-law break-danced to Sir Mix-A-Lot while a circle of cousins cheered around him. I remember Otis Redding, Madonna, and Kool and the Gang, and a crowded floor with a chandelier, or maybe a disco ball. My dad doesn’t dance, but he watched from the sidelines. Throughout all of the planning and the big day itself, I don’t recall ever dreaming of being a bride. I’ve always been satisfied with being a guest, happy to dance my ass off to every wedding classic, without any formal responsibility.
Afterwards, my sister and her new husband honeymooned in Las Vegas, the most exotic location they could afford. They were both recent college graduates with fresh student debt. With the wedding over and his duties complete, my dad refocused on his other projects. I worried about the fit of my school uniform skirt and who to sit with at lunch. Our lives moved on, the CDs eventually placed in a box somewhere, stored away in my sister’s basement in the suburbs.
On her twentieth wedding anniversary last year, my sister posted a picture on social media, taken during her first dance. It’s a little blurry, since it’s been scanned, and I wonder who took it. She didn’t hire a professional photographer for the reception.
I texted her CONGRATULATIONS, followed by a string of heart emojis. I asked what her first dance song was, and she replied almost immediately. It’s a song she chose for that specific moment, with her husband, all those years ago. A song she’ll never forget, and that I wouldn’t recognize if I heard.
My dad uses Spotify now and has joined Instagram, where he has five followers, including my dog. He is a hobbyist, still, but mostly missed the modern era of always needing to share what he’s made. Before being seen was such an easy thing to measure, I wonder if people create more things because they wanted to, with less ulterior motivation attached.
It’s human to only remember certain moments, for memory to be selective, confirmed by photographs or prompted by a playlist, linking music to memory. I love the stories spun by these artifacts, but whether they’re always honest, I’m not sure. Cognitive psychology labels many categories of ‘memory bias’, which explain why people remember some details and not others. ‘Leveling and sharpening’ refer to the bias that occurs you retell the same story repetitively – nostalgia waves its magic wand, dramatizing the details each time to shape your own sparkling narrative. The volume might be turned up in some parts, the colors shaded in. Eventually, the reconstructed story is so ingrained, it becomes part of you. It becomes real.
What I like about nostalgia is how it preserves the accidental art of everyday creations. Passion projects, love letters, eulogies, mix CDs: snippets of inspiration that people return to, hoping to recreate a feeling. A slap of joy, a choke of grief, a chord or melody, cued at the press of a button.
I wanted to look my dad when I was young – to belong somewhere, and because I hoped that we were similar. My dad likes to make things, quietly and behind closed doors. Growing up, I wanted privacy and space like that, too. I wanted to listen to the Beatles, porous and receptive, my mood shifting with the songs.