My first winter in the Bay, I frequently loitered around the South Shore Center in Alameda, a recognizably indistinct shopping development anchored by Safeway, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and a TJ Maxx crowning this mild-weathered summit of Maslow’s hierarchy. It was the holiday season. Displays of scented pine cones had been recently unloaded in front of the Safeway entrance; poinsettias were flanking the Trader Joe’s florist corner in bold, red, wax paper-wrapped pots, and the Starbucks had already put up holiday-themed window decals not seen since video stores were sentenced to extinction. I would sometimes be as deliberate as to bring a book to read in the strip mall’s interior courtyard, posing feet away from the nice families enjoying their lunch on the patio of the Italian chain restaurant where Bombay Sapphire was unironically adorned closer to the top shelf than the well. It was complete euphoria. The whole experience would feel like a complete indulgence each and every time, and that was unaffected by whether or not I would stop into Cold Stone on the way in. What made it such an absolute draw that I would make the drive from Oakland, eschewing Jack London Square, Berkeley, or a more cosmopolitan trip into San Francisco, was the music.
Every bench in the courtyard seemed to be perfectly positioned to enjoy a stereo effect from speakers that must have been hidden away behind every blind spot in that carefully architected kingdom of pleasures in a plan that had to have been devised with the same tactical precision as the special operation behind Zero Dark Thirty. They played music so inoffensive and so conducive to being relegated to a low background hum but at a volume that instead embedded the melodic lyrics into the foreground of experience. Music played anywhere is just music played in the world, and yet we have this category—not a musical genre per-se—a type of distinction which makes certain types of played music resemble something which we call ‘the soundtrack to our lives.’ The soundtrack to our lives is a form of experiencing rather than a form of music. The soundtrack confirms individual melodramatic subjectivity: it’s the filling in of the lyricism that has elided the confirmation of subjectivity, which words alone have failed to do. It’s eloquence beyond words; knowingness without the task of rational confirmation, which is perhaps to say that the soundtrack conveys the comfort of accuracy rather than the cold sterility of correctness. It’s what tells you that you are really most at home in yourself when you are bathed by emotions you can always recognize, and that whatever dissonance you sense is not the real, but an accident that you have to clean up after which will be resolved because you can rely on a faith that you are working towards a future guaranteed to you. The soundtrack never concludes with dissonance—it always gets resolved! So fear not, and do the work. So synchronize your pulse to the beat, because the toil to that promised future will all be more pleasant if you whistle while you work.