Elegy for Heavy, Clunky Stuff

Early this September I biked over to John Carroll University, where I teach English lit, to get ready for the new term. And as I rode across campus, I witnessed a familiar fall ritual.

The same scene, I am sure, was unfolding at colleges throughout the country: fretful parents were unloading lumbering SUVs, helping their sons and daughters move into their dorm rooms.

And as I watched the mothers and fathers and young men and women carry in their desk lamps and laptops, their gym bags and tennis rackets, their iPads and iPods and iPhones and rock star posters, a single word came unbidden to my mind: wimps!

Because we didn't have it so easy back in my day. Back in the early '70s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside, we were a tougher breed of student, accompanied by a tougher breed of parent.

Why? Because we had stuff. Great big pieces of heavy, clunky stuff. In those ancient, pre-digital days, technology wasn't something you carried around in your purse or your pocket.

Take music, to begin with. As I watched my students moving in, I was thinking, where's the stuff?

What, no milk crates loaded with 500 pounds of LPs? No shoe boxes overflowing with eight-track tapes? No snakelike coils of power cords and speaker wire and connecting cable? No Dual or Garrard record players? No 100-pound Kenwood amplifiers or Sansui tuners to test dad's bad back?

In my day, moving into your dorm room involved wrestling at least two gigantic floor-standing speakers out of the station wagon — no wimpy minivans or SUVs for us — and into your room. These speakers were the stuff of legend: 4 feet high, 80 pounds apiece.

In those days, people judged you by the size of your speakers. I personally had a couple of Cerwin-Vega behemoths that could shake Aberdeen-Inverness Residence Hall to its very foundation. But my roommate, Mark, had even bigger speakers, a hulking pair of Altec Model 19s that made me feel — well, a little inadequate. We'd crank up the Stones or the Who or something mellow like the Mamas and the Papas, and it was righteous.

The college students of today, with their silly little earbuds and iPods, will never understand the visceral, primordial thrill of walking past a '70s-vintage dorm on a balmy Friday night, every window open to the subwoofer-induced mayhem of a thousand mighty loudspeakers blasting a thousand different songs at the same time. An audio earthquake, a 50,000-watt primal scream of youthful love and lust.

I walk past the residence halls at John Carroll and am struck by the silence. On those rare occasions — say, around midterm time — when the volume was turned down at my old dorm, you heard another sound, now lost and archaic: the cricket hum and clatter of typewriters.

A rush of tapping came from each window, followed by a pause as a young English major considered the next sentence of her Keats essay or a young philosophy student crafted his repudiation of Heidegger. The sound of typing was the sound of thought.

Not to mention the fact that typewriters were heavy. I had a used IBM Selectric, the MacBook Pro of its day, and by God, you had to be muy macho to lift that thing. That sucker, 50 pounds of solid steel, wasn't going anywhere.

I watched with disdain as my students unpacked their 2-ounce tablets. The fathers stood around awkwardly. Their primary function in life — carrying heavy objects — had been negated by pods and pads and buds. They were reduced to their secondary function: writing checks.

The glory of all that musical gear has dwindled to a couple of wires dangling from the head of every undergrad. The typewriter, of course, is extinct, and not one of my students will ever know the sweet, toxic aroma of Wite-Out.

But as I watched the long phalanxes of SUVs disgorging their fresh new students, I realized a change of an even bigger magnitude has occurred: Where were the bookshelves?

More importantly, where were the things we used to put on them, things we called "books"? Books were bigger, heavier and clunkier even than LPs.

Those cardboard boxes bulging with books meant you were serious about all this. Going to college meant four years of living with books.

But now even the books have gone away. The lovely, glorious, massively heavy books have flown up into the cloud.

I watched a father hand his son a Kindle. A mother handed her daughter a Nook.

And then they hugged, the terrible, end-of-an-era, off-to-college hug, a ritual that has remained just as heavy and massive and lovely as it was in my day.

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