There were five cassette tapes, one with a priceless interview with information for the book on the New Jersey/New York waterfront that Jim is finishing, and four with equally priceless audio documents of twentieth-century American culture: an interview with Muhammad Ali that Jim had taped from the radio; Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday songs; a snippet from an Al Smith speech; JFK, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X. Jim had compiled everything on the tapes from a friend’s record collection and other not readily revistable sources to play during his signature lecture course, Formation of Modern American Culture, and whether there were 400 or 35 undergraduates, the four tapes, their plastic sides fading, called for careful listening.
The four tapes had traveled with us in various boxes during our moves in the Midwest and around the Northeast. Because four-year-old Charlie had discovered how to pull out the tape—and how much tape a cassette contains—and how over-the-top annoyed were the expressions of his parents when this happened—Charlie, since then, has been able to detect any cassette tape in a room, no matter how hidden. (“I think he can smell them,” a former aide sighed.)
It did seem ironically fortunate that Charlie had become “entangled” (I suppose that is an appropriate word) in something—cassette tapes—that is a soon to be obsolete technology. At first we tried to teach Charlie to tolerate having a tape in the same room without him touching and tearing it apart, and these attempts worked for awhile at school or at home, and then gradually dwindled. It was certainly easy to discard every tape for CD’s and, while Jim and I would have preferred to teach Charlie not to destroy tapes, this seemed the best solution.
It did mean that Jim had to take extreme measures to hide those four tapes and then the fifth when it was loaned to him, and our move last summer into my in-laws’ house, and Jim’s moving into a new office, created numerous grounds for losing track of small items, five cassette tapes included. (After all, Jim hid them really well.)
Jim found the tapes on Tuesday night in a box in the closet in Charlie’s room, and loaded them into his briefcase.
At 4.30am, Charlie woke up groaning and, when I went to check on him, flopped onto the floor screaming. I tried to have him lie on a big pillow as he was aiming his forehead straight down; Jim brought him into our room and within seconds Charlie was laughing and rolling and kicking with impressive energy for 4.45am, and continued to do so till I got up at 6.30am. I was getting ready for work; I ran up the stairs for my coffee and found Charlie sitting on the couch, giggling.
Sitting in a vast web of plastic tape, still attached to five fading cassette cases.
I called Jim who seized the one cassette that he had borrowed and found a pencil. I could see the ends of the black tape, ripped and limp like the roots of a pulled-up weed. Charlie ran around the room, laughing and babbling: Any attempts to speak harshly/sternly/angrily to him do (I think) register, but in also only seem to catapult Charlie into more silliness (as in he kept trying to pull out more of what was left of the tape). A calm, composed, and matter-of-fact face and tone is the best thing, with consequences addressed later. And while I can’t say Jim and I exactly achieved that—-to where had those tapes traveled only to be wrecked in 45 seconds of glee?—-Charlie went to get his coat and hat and shoes and ran up and down the snowy grass until the bus came.
Charlie’s teacher emailed to say that he was a little extra-tired, and a little more hyper and silly than usual, but nothing out of the ordinary. Charlie often has delayed emotional reactions to things—such as doing what he was not supposed to do—-and from the time he ran off the bus, I stayed close by. We passed our usual afternoon: He played piano, went on a snow-and-ice walk, helped me with the laundry and changing the sheets on his bed, visited the library, carried half the groceries to the car. On the ride home, Charlie said “home bankett,” with great consternation a few times; after his shower, Charlie stood before me, looked me in the eye and said “squishy ball garbage.”
“You have it. Squishy ball Charlie, not garbage.” Taking away Charlie’s favorite things as “punishment” for wrecking the tapes is not the way to teach him the right thing to do: But praising him for treating other people’s things with as much care as he does his own is, and that will be a lesson to keep working on tomorrow, and for many days.
Just before 9pm the whine-moans started and Charlie told me, “Mommy stairs. Upp-stairs” and up I went. Jim came home and Charlie gave him a sunny smile, then asked me to “folda bankett” before snuggling his feet into it.
“The one tape works,” said Jim. “I was able to save it.”
I regretted the loss of the other four.
“How important is it?” Jim shrugged. “Like you said, everything on them is in my head.”
Indeed: What’s important—who’s important—-is right here with us. What got lost is ours to find again, or to realize how very little we need it, after all.