The Memory of the Moment

The Memory of the Moment! Spiders, Used Vinyls, and the Digital Age

What do we honor most: the moment, or the urge to document it?

SAMUEL HYLAND

A few days ago, I woke up from a nap to the sight of a large spider in the process of spinning a web in the corner directly above my desk. The spider was grandiose and gangly, moving in sporadic spurts and folding its long, paper-thin legs into obscene angles. Every time the spider moved, it seemed like it was going to suddenly lose its balance and fall directly into my belongings. As I stared at the insect, groggy-faced, minutes away from a meeting I would have to sit through directly beneath its eight-eyed gaze, it bounced up and down on the silk of its newest project, an impressive-yet-invisible architectural feat that, although I could not see it fully without my glasses, seemed to take up much more than just that corner’s square footage. Squinting, I could make out several threads of loose silk hanging down from my ceiling; they blew eerily in the artificial wind of my electric fan. 

It was not too long after this realization that another one overshadowed it: there was, in fact, an entire ecosystem of spiders inhabiting my room. Some nights, the last thing I saw was a smaller spider lifelessly suspended in mid-air a few centimeters away from the larger one, only for me to wake up the next morning and see the smaller spider nowhere to be found. In the days that followed, I became increasingly more attentive to the infrastructural makeup of the bugs I was sharing my room with: those tiny black specs that lined the upper crevices of my wall were indeed spiders; there was a small congregation of tiny ants sizing up the corpse of a deceased bee my mother had killed back in February; those long “dust” streaks that adorned the abandoned cheap remote-control drone at the bottom of my drawer set were actually thick, months-old cobwebs. (The cobwebs were probably the work of the same spider that now inhabited the space above my desk – I had seen the same long-legged, gangly figure floating in mid-air beneath my drawer set some time ago, but decided not to do anything about it.)

All of this was one more stark harbinger of the fact that time was changing while I was sitting still. Just a matter of months ago, around the same time that my mom struck down the bee the tiny ants were (and still are, as I write this) picking away at, I was looking out of my window in the middle of online school with eager anticipation of the days that the tree outside my room would turn green – only to find out, as I do every year, that all torrents of mental preparation change nothing about the actuality of what is being prepared for. Whereas in my mid-February daydreams, I rode my bike through my sunlit neighborhood and got lost on purpose as part of a series of adventurous treks, many of the days in summer were too unbearably hot for me to merely ride around the block (assuming that my un-exercised legs weren’t already writhing with pain midway). In place of utopian bug-free summers that, in retrospect, only really seemed possible then because bugs weren’t really abundant in the winter months, warmer weather gave rise to aggressive ant infestations and the occasional realization that the itch on your arm was not exactly an irritation of skin cells. In my remote-learning daydreams, I was either interning at a major magazine, devoting my time to a thriving freelance culture journalism endeavor, or doing a series of very cool in-person interviews that made me feel like a part of the New York I saw in movies. In reality, I was rudely awakened to rejection letters from everything I applied to, an anti-climactic pool of unanswered interview requests, and about twelve occurrences of “I’ll have to pass on this one” populating my email inbox. Lactic acid, bug infestations, and failure do not exist in daydreams. 

Spending the summer without a job was a tricky adjustment for the aggressive busybody side of me I had spent a majority of the past year entertaining. I grew addicted to drawing satisfaction from the feeling that I was fighting neck-and-neck in a battle against the clock; but now, for the first time, my opponent was running circles around me. And there was nothing I could do about it. 

The concept of the moment is now afforded a multi-dimensional makeup: one finite version of any given second exists in the present, and another infinite, malleable version takes command of the future.”

In my restlessness, much like I did with the spider ecosystem, I began to pay much closer attention to signs that things were changing. At first, it was the time itself – I would often spend more time glancing up at a digital clock than reading whatever book I had in my lap – but soon enough, the focus expanded to more immediate matters at hand: I was going to college in a matter of weeks. Stationed haphazardly on either side of my bed, just a matter of feet away from a baby picture of my sister and I standing side-by-side in a crib, were mid-sized plastic containers packed to the brim with the clothes I wore throughout high school. Opening my closet revealed an eerie emptiness, haunted by the ghosts of both the clothes I had opted to give away in the midst of hectic college packing, and the younger man that wore them to school just a matter of years ago.

My twin sister was already a few weeks into a pre-college program her university mandated for all first-year students. Every now and again, I would mindlessly walk into her bedroom and eventually have the sensation that I was missing something – Why did I come to this room again? It would dawn on me some time later that the missing thing was her. I gazed around her room on some days, looking around at the vast assortment of childhood pictures that adorned her walls. In one, a kindergarten student grinned into a camera flash; in another, a slightly older second-grader bore the same exact Cheshire grin, this time standing in front of the classroom library; a favorite of ours saw a skinny-armed middle-schooler standing alongside her brother at a Mets game. Before, there had typically been a human inside the room for me to reference the photos back to. Now, the job would have to be handled by memories alone.

At some point in the few weeks of her pre-college program, my sister video called me on the premise that she was killing downtime with friends in a campus record store. I balked when she asked me if there was anything I wanted. I was relatively new to embracing the record player as a primary means of music consumption, rather than an aestheticized alternative to streaming services. I received my own – a compact portable version of my Grandma’s impressive phonograph – on the previous Christmas morning, along with a vinyl copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Something about obtaining the two in conjunction with one another, on top of the fact that my primary perception of the record player had been Urban Outfitters window candy, contributed to a notion in my mind that assuredly saw vinyl as simply a cooler way to listen to music I was already familiar with. What would this sound like on my new record player? It became a common question when I listened to new albums on Spotify. My first Amazon searches upon receiving the gift were records that I had already consumed at obsessive levels, or whose cult statuses seamlessly substituted for familiarity: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Man Alive!. The Velvet Underground and Nico. Hot Rats. I asked my sister to turn her camera around and show me the aisles as she was sifting through them. It quickly grew frustrating. There were covers upon covers of old white men toting acoustic guitars, faded families gathered around labels that advertised “(Family surname)’s Beloved Hymns,” and strict-looking professional jazz ensembles that appeared as if they were already scolding me for the understanding I lacked. I told my sister to get whatever she wanted.

A month or so later, upon coming back home, she walked into my room brandishing a larger-than-usual brown lunch bag of about twenty records she told me she had stockpiled from the clearance section. There were about three, she explained, that she actually purchased with her own money – the rest of them were part of a large stack that the shop owner was literally giving away for free if you could carry it all. Taking inventory, I browsed through the labels, realized that I had never heard of any of them, and subsequently fixated on the price tags. The most expensive one was seven dollars. It was a slap in the face to the exclusionary listening culture I had unknowingly fostered in my short time owning a record player: where most of the vinyls I was ordering from Amazon priced out at somewhere between 30 and 50 dollars, with much of my anticipation stemming from the fact that there was guaranteed luxury to be expected, this new frontier was challenging me to anticipate the things that I didn’t know, rather than the things that I did. 

It was right in line with the realities I had just begun coming to terms with over the course of that summer. Leaving for college in a matter of weeks would mean having to force myself, whether I liked it or not, to walk into things I had zero familiarity, comfort, or desire to be with. Much like the stack of dusty, worn vinyl records that sat sprawled out on my bed – a far cry from the sleek, shiny, freshly-shipped brand new albums that sat underneath my desk in pristine condition – there was also the risk of it all being a grand waste of money. Suppose the stack actually wasn’t free, and my sister made up the story about the store owner so I wouldn’t feel bad about her generosity. What were the chances of all twenty-something albums boasting as good of an experience as I was made accustomed to by my own purchases? If I sat down for the combined duration of every single LP that was in that bag – probably somewhere around twenty hours – and not a single minute of it lived up to the standard I had invented with my affinity for freshly-delivered classics, it would be yet another victory for Father Time in our summer-long boxing match. It was the same risk that was present, now with even greater downfalls, when it came to the prospect of university. There was no official guarantee that I was going to come out any better than I went in. There was, in fact, a risk that I would come out even worse than I had entered. What would happen if, after four years, my family wound up seeing half a million dollars stripped from a bank that hadn’t even had that much in the first place, with a confused (and newly depressed) son to show for it? Father Time would have long secured victory in our bout by then – and in foresight, he would probably be somewhere laughing his ass off. 

In every case, rather than the live-for-now determinism that began taking its final breaths when technology took its first, one is presented with an open means of conversation between the past, the present, and the future, all at once – more commonly known as time travel.”

But, in the grand scheme of things today, Father Time had already won. At least for this summer. I set my sights on a free Monday morning to set up my record player for the first time in several months. Because I had stayed up until four o’clock AM the previous evening – doing absolutely nothing but being on my phone – it was difficult to obey my screaming 10 AM alarm, which sounded a lot like it was making fun of me for my anti-time failures of late. I groggily sifted through the pile of cheap LPs and narrowed my decision down to two: an obscure record emblazoned with the word Starfighters, with a black sky featuring three fiery fighter jets on the front cover and five tough-looking dudes on the back; and an equally obscure sleeve bearing the term RAREARTH six times on the front, written with the kind of cutting-edge 3D typography that populates dusty action comics in the the attics of creepy uncles across the nation, with snazzily dressed, happier-looking hippies photographed on the opposite side. I scoured the fine print of each record for information I was too lazy to find online. Starfighters was recorded at Battery Studios in London; Rarearth was recorded at Motown Studios in Hollywood, California. I thought back to an old Wonderland profile I read about a year prior, in which the rapper Wiki mused that “people feel, at least in New York City, like it’s a cool thing to be into UK shit.” It conjured brutal memories of the faux-cockney accent I spoke to classmates with through my final years of elementary school, and my first year of middle school, in hopes of convincing peers that I was, in fact, an interesting foreign student who was somewhat better than everyone else. (Eventually, my entire sixth grade class caught on, and I lost credibility within my middle school for a very long time.) I immediately chose Rarearth.

The songs on the album were funk-brimming and buoyant, reminiscent of a freewheeling time in its native California’s long-hair-don’t-care rock and roll golden age. The most curious thing, yet, was not the album itself, but what happened when I tried to save the songs I liked on Spotify: the entire LP was nowhere to be found. Every other time I listened to albums on my record player, I favorited the tracks I enjoyed once they faded out, revisiting them every so often to unearth memories of ordering, unpacking, and listening to their physical manifestations. It was a means of preserving the moment for later expenditure, safekeeping a distinct period of time, inadvertently constructing a cushion that permitted me to not actually live within it. Now, in contrast, I was faced with a moment that would both live and die in the forty-five minutes or so that introduced it to me. There was no possibility of being prompted to revisit it by way of a lucky playlist shuffle, nor was there any way for me to safekeep it from deletion in my brain’s memory bank once I left all my vinyls at home and went to college. This memory, I realized midway through the album, had an expiration date.

Spending a summer away from my usual hustle unearthed a slew of other tangible things I did not realize could have expiration dates. Being fully invested in labor throughout high school, for instance, caused me to entirely miss whatever once-in-a-lifetime memories may have surrounded me – yes, entirely labor-focused approaches often make for riches later in life, but consequently, for as much has been gained in affluence, one may find themselves stammering when their grandchildren ask for stories about the past. There are also expiration dates on connections that seem never-ending. At some point in mid-June, I reached out to my elementary school best friend after stumbling upon his number while browsing through my contacts. It was the first time I had called him since middle school, and I remembered him saying something about potentially moving in our last conversation. The only number I had was his house phone. I called three times, and on each occasion, the phone let out one long, monotone beep. 

The digital age has provided a subtle cheat against such dilemmas, where by way of Snapchat stories, Instagram posts, and Facebook status updates, we are able to collectively tap out of such finality, publicly preserving memories for followers while consuming the memories of friends and internet strangers alike. Dinners with pals on rainy days in the city are memorialized with a slew of smiling photos and goofy videos, available for cross-platform sharing and preservation in digital galleries. The concept of the moment is now afforded a multi-dimensional makeup: one finite version of any given second exists in the present, and another infinite, malleable version takes command of the future. You can look back into your phone’s gallery and scoff at an old photo you took during your middle school goth phase. Your mom can comment on that rainy-day New York City dinner video you posted a year ago and publicly declare that she disapproves of your outfit. Your childhood bully can stumble upon a recent Instagram post of yours, realize that you have long evolved from the version of yourself that he