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The Work of Grief in the Age of Digital Reproduction

FieldtapeMy father died in 2006, which is getting to be a long time ago. I am aware of this passage of time because every year, he would make a collection of Christmas music that he would share with dozens – maybe hundreds – of family and friends. Only the last year, the one for 2006, existed as a CD, rather than as a cassette. He died, very suddenly, in October of 2006, and he had already burned dozens of the 2006 Christmas CD.

Those CDs sat in my basement for a year, possibly two. I had taken them and his Christmas list with me from my parents’ house in Vermont to our house in South Carolina with the intention of mailing them, but I could not. Christmas that year, I was not in a place where I could busy myself with mailing labels and padded envelopes so I could deliver musical Christmas greetings from a dead man who happened to be my father. But they sat in the basement, one of those constant lowgrade rebukes – a reminder of a good intention left undone. Finally, I shared them, as best as I could, a year or two later and enough time had passed that for most people, listening to the 2006 CD seemed to be a welcome reminder of Dan Field. (I have listened to this CD exactly once, as one of the tracks is my father reading an excerpt from Auden’s “For the Time Being,” which absolutely unhinged me, listening to it with my mother, as we tried to decorate a Christmas tree in 2006.)

Friends and family would occasionally mention how they continued to enjoy the tapes each year, but as more time passed, the format of the music became a problem. If you have purchased a car in the last decade, chances are it does not have a cassette player. Chances are, you use a computer to listen to music at home. As a rule, holidays are supposed to be about tradition and not about disruptive technologies, but the digital music explosion pushed my father’s tapes in the direction of obsolescence.

I’d messed around some with digitizing LPs – enough to know it was tedious and frustrating – but I began to wonder about converting these cassettes to a form where people could listen to them again. I did some research, and with the help of Internet stranger/friends, identified the Behringer UCA222 U-Control Ultra-Low Latency 2 In/2 Out USB Audio Interface as the device that would make my father’s labors of love once again accessible to the people he loved.

I found it difficult to get started. For one thing, as I am probably too quick to mention, Christmas is not a holiday that is geared toward childless orphans like me. For another, we are all exposed to too much Christmas music. The Lou Rawls Christmas album while wrapping presents in mid-December? Sure. But  Wham’s “Last Christmas” at Einstein’s Bagels the week after Halloween? Less so. For another thing , the process of digitizing is tedious, involving being near a computer playing Christmas music at a volume that is loud enough to know when the side is done, but not so loud that it’s hard to do other stuff on the computer. And there were the occasional emotional landmines of tapes that included readings recorded by my father or by my mother, who died just before Christmas in 2009.

But beyond that, the process is like doing laundry, involving sorting, pushing buttons and waiting. Much later than I’d hoped, I had the 20 or so years of tapes digitized(some early years are missing), and scanned the covers. My handsome and talented friend Daniel McCord was kind enough to help me set up a website for distributing these files, and I sent off an email to as many of the original tape recipients as I could recover.

Eject DanRecovering the names of the recipients from my father’s files involved revisiting an earlier digital encounter with my late father. He was an academic, and left some projects unfinished at the time of his death. He studied Russian history, and I study early American literature, and I could see that a) he had a lot of stuff for these projects on his computer, and b) I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I went to Best Buy, bought an external hard drive, and put the contents of his laptop and desktop onto this drive, which thought of as “Dad’s digital urn.” As a fellow academic, there was something unsettling in seeing how much of one’s life and work could be dragged and dropped into a plastic box the size of a deck of cards. Not to mention that the digital urn is almost as vulnerable to accidental insults as a real urn. The original digital urn was an earl hard drive that demanded two USB ports to itself, and clicks like a beetle. I called the drive “Dan Field,” which meant that the computer prompts things like “Compress Dan Field,” “Eject Dan Field,” or my favorite, “Burn Dan Field to disc.” I am happy that this record of his life and work exists in a portable form, but there is something brutal in the reduction of a loved one’s life and work to zeroes and ones.

But I digress. I am not a digital humanist, though I have searched for one – with the tapes, at the end of all of this, it strikes me is how making something more permanent by digitizing it makes it seem more ephemeral. The tapes, obsolete as they are, rattle when you shake them, and will need to be put somewhere now that they are digitized. The link to the website, which represents my father’s labor of love, my labor of love, not to mention a heroic effort by Daniel McCord to make the website, is infinitely portable and shareable. (I am by design not including a link here, but am happy to share if you email me at [email protected].)

Indeed, a funny thing happened on the way to putting my late father’s Christmas tapes on the Internet. I am glad I did the work of converting these tapes to mp3s, and of scanning their painstakingly decorated covers. I am happy to be able to share these tapes again with their original recipients. As much if not more, I am happy to share them with my friends who never met him. My partner, Amy Monaghan, and I moved to Clemson not long before my dad died, as it turned out, and it’s always bothered me how few of the fixtures of my current day-to-day life ever got to meet my parents. The tape project functions as a connection, however slim between two phases of my life. It’s a lot of work for a URL to do:  “Hey- here was this guy, who was my father and taught me how to ride a bike, etcetera, etcetera, and he did other things, and was obsessive about sharing music he loved, and now I’m sharing some of that with you – merry Christmas, BTW.” As I said, if you’d like to hear them, drop me a line. And best to you and yours at this season of the year.


Jonathan Beecher Field is riding a bison sleigh.

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