Saturday is my birthday, which is always a time of reflection for me, and this year, as I turn 38, I feel like I am especially flooded with memories of my past. Thirty-eight is not a milestone year, but it is the 20th anniversary of something momentous that happened two decades ago: I started college.
Did you think I was going to say “graduated high school?” That’s the 20-year anniversary most of my peers have been nonchalantly bringing up lately, in this weird way where they act like they don’t want to talk about it because it makes them feel old but they aren’t going to let the anniversary go unnoticed either.
Graduating high school just wasn’t a big deal to me. I remember telling my mom that during graduation week, probably when she remarked how calm I was. I didn’t hate high school or anything, I just knew that “graduating high school” was not going to be my Everest. To me, it was just the end of being in this ridiculously coddled environment, the end of being a big, smart fish in a small pond of stoned carnival goldfish, and the end of spending half of every class just goofing off and being a pain in the teacher’s ass.
I had outgrown that. I was ready to move onto a bigger pond. I think my high school graduating class had 210 kids in it. I was ready to move down to College Park where UMD had about 24,000 undergraduate students, if I remember correctly. At the end of my summer, I would move into a dormitory high-rise that can house 607 students alone (according to the current webpage for Ellicott Hall).
When it came to college choices, I was really only interested in attending a big school. I remember touring Loyola College in Baltimore just for the experience of it and the tour guide told us “you can’t cross campus without seeing someone you know” and my gut reaction was “that sounds awful.” People might think that as an introvert I would be more interested in a small school, but I looked at it like this: I only like about 10 percent of people; I needed to go to a big school so that 10 percent could net me a decent number of friends. I also really wanted a school with a big sports team, which is funny, because I hated sports at the time. But sports and “going to the game” was just wrapped up in my head as something you do at college. That probably had something to do with my dad’s expectations for me and college.
Since the tenth grade I knew I wanted to go to journalism school, and was interested in Northwestern, Penn State, Syracuse, UNC Chapel Hill, and UMD College Park. Northwestern is ridiculously expensive, so I let that one fall to the wayside early. Penn State was in the middle of nowhere and students we met during a visit to the college told us they would go to Walmart to hang out (dude, you don’t have to go to college to do that). Syracuse specialized in broadcast journalism, which I didn’t realize until touring it, plus the town is filled with horrible hills that would make riding my bike most unpleasant (and I had made up my mind that I was going to be a biker in college, and I bought a sweet red-orange Trek bike that I really did rely on, at least the first two years of college). Plus our student tour guide at Syracuse confused “astrology” with “astronomy,” so that was a serious concern. And Chapel Hill felt really far so I never seriously looked into it.
And after all, UMD had already caught my heart during a tenth or eleventh grade visit for a high school literary magazine convention or something like that. I got off that school bus and I saw that Georgian architecture and thought “this is what a college is supposed to look like.” The campus was gigantic. The students were really diverse and looked like normal people (versus preppy and rich like the Johns Hopkins kids I saw when visiting my mom at work). It had a great journalism school that was NOT easy to get into, and a high school newspaper mentor of mine who was a year ahead of me was already there and could vouch for it. I could get in-state tuition, and I was received into the honors program. And it was just a metro ride from D.C., where any imaginable kind of fun could be had—except for going to a Walmart.
Sidenote, this is how I took advantage of being in D.C. during college: 1) Frequently visiting the National Zoo, 2) Going to Penn Station to eat at all the mini restaurants 3) Going to federal/international buildings to be a protester 4) Getting a paid internship on a nonprofit election website for my last semester in college. I went to D.C. for “night life” an official zero number of times. But I did go to a decent number of museums, got quite familiar with the metro system, and learned to feel comfortable just walking around a big city. I may be just 5’0”, but when I’m walking in a city, I look like someone not to be messed with.
When it came time to actually move into college at the end of August, I admit, I was pretty terrified. I was moving in with two female roommates I didn’t know. (And in the weirdest of coincidences, my roommate Jenny’s best friend was going to UMBC and was dating a guy I semi-dated in high school and he was still mad at me, and here I was seeing his new girlfriend every couple of weeks when she came to College Park to visit her best friend/my roommate. It’s a small world.) I think I got to our room last and just happily accepted the top bunk. I literally climbed on my desk chair, onto my desk, and into my twin top-bunk every night. In a way, it felt like I was 10.
But back to move in: my parents and brother had all come down with me, helped me unload my stuff and take it up the elevators to the 8th floor—the penthouse, where thankfully I was just two doors down from the elevator. My dorm window faced the great Byrd Stadium, which has since been renamed, generically, Maryland Stadium. I only went to two football games, I think, but I could hear the games (and the marching band practices) from my room whether I went or not, and I was glad—even if I wasn’t going to the football games, I could talk to my dad about whether it had been a good game or not based on the cheering.
We set up my personal computer for the first time. My mom had ordered one through the tech office at JHU, and while I knew nothing about computers, this guy had set me up in style. It wasn’t a Dell or other brand name computer, but it was fast and my monitor was huge and I had this funky ergonomic keyboard that we had not asked for but it ended up being totally necessary, because with all the typing a journalism major/American studies minor does, I developed carpal tunnel, or something like it. When people visited my room, they complimented my computer, and I just shrugged and smiled.
Personal computers were still new in 1998. Not like brand new, but new to the masses. Pretty new for EVERY college student to be having one. I remember my new friends asking me what kind of music I had, like on my computer, and I just gave them a look. I believe it was Steve who set me up with WINAMP, a program to play MP3s on, and showed me how to find friends on our dorm’s network (and other dorms’ networks), and the wider internet, and how all the music you could ever want was findable and free.
And I want to pause on this part: the fact that music was suddenly so available. I had grown up in rural Harford County. We could get the Baltimore radio stations, but for my family that meant the classic rock station (WGRX) and 98 Rock, which was playing stuff like Metallica and AC/DC, so I didn’t really listen to that. We could just barely get 99.1WHFS out of D.C. if the weather was good—and their “alternative” was what my friends and I were really into. (We also listened to 98.5 out of York, which played a mix of alternative and pop, but everyone agreed this station was way less cool.) I also was a heavy consumer of MTV from 1993 to 1996, which is when I got my driver’s license and got a job and got out of the house and stopped watching TV. But MTV was formative to my musical tastes, and the spectrum of musical offerings that I took in every Saturday morning for the Top 20 countdown gave me a good exposure to pop, hip-hop, alternative, grunge, and even the occasional country song in there now and then (though thankfully usually they just showed the first 15 seconds and then moved on).
But when I got to college, and discovered MP3s and how to find them with the internet, it was a big deal. I was not aware that this existed. No more trying to catch a song on the radio or MTV or taking a risk on buying the CD. Like that song you heard in a friend’s room? Download the whole folder they created of similar music. Never heard of that artist? Here is their whole recorded catalog, plus bootlegs. It was amazing. And overwhelming.
I’m not a super music person. If I like 10 percent of people, I must only like .02 percent of music. And that’s within the genres I actually like. So my collection never grew that large, but I did branch out, and often times I traced down specific songs I had always wanted for just that song and not the whole album, or a song I had heard at like 6 a.m. on the radio and then never heard again or even knew what it was.
And so it is with all that history that I present you with this year’s birthday playlist on Spotify, from a little time capsule I have carried around for almost 20 years—“First Mix CD.” Because along with learning how to find MP3s at college, I learned how to burn CDs of them so I could listen to them on my car or at my parents’ house. And this crazy mixture of music was what I first burned a hard copy of, and have been listening to over and over and over again ever since.
I thought it would be fun to write about every song and why it made it on the cd, but this post is already long enough. I’ll keep that as a separate post right HERE, and you’re welcome to read it or not.
Happy 38th birthday and 20th anniversaries to all my other 1980 friends out there! And may this music playlist HERE make your Friday more fantastic.