Tuning Out

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Living in New York, it's mandatory in your everyday life to zone out
and enter a cocoon of personal space, be it in the subway, waiting in
line at restaurants, or even just walking down the block. In a sense,
it's an escape -- a chance to block out all the noise and traffic around
you -- but in other ways it's pretty frustrating. I'll be on the 6 train
or walking down Broadway when I notice how nearly everyone has the
familiar white earbuds of the iPod on, serving as some sort of modern
blinder not unlike those worn by the horses pulling carriages in
Central Park. I often think about the age before the Walkman and the
cell phone, when folks were left merely to their own thoughts, or
(heaven forbid) conversations with strangers.

But as I struggle to moderate my time spent zoning out with my
tunes -- after all, a little conversation with strangers adds some spice
to life -- I find myself keeping track of habits and themes in the music
I listen to. It's become a sort of involuntary reflex, to pick the
right type of music to suit the occasion of my errands and daily

For example, after all the years of flying I've endured, I hate to
admit that I'm probably not the most carefree airline passenger to
have stumbled dazed through the halls of LaGuardia. There's just
something about the safe, comfortable ground receding so quickly and
being swept up leagues above the shimmering expanse of the city that
terrifies the living hell out of me. Once the captain has deemed it
safe to use portable electronic devices, you'd better believe I am
fully plugged in, usually listening to some jazz or classical to
soothe my nerves. ( href="">Brad Mehldau and
Chopin generally keep me from really losing it as we soar over the
outer boroughs and the cars and buildings become miniature through my
tiny rectangular window.) Once we've reached cruising altitude and I
can remove my vise grip from the armrests, I'm more prone to switch to
something more upbeat like rap or rock as I begin to examine the back
of the head of the person sitting in front of me. You can probably
tell I'm not a huge fan of air travel.

Similarly, when I'm crushed between commuters on the subway I have my
standard fare for coping, and it's inevitably loud. In these
situations I find hip-hop to be the only thing keeping my patience
intact. Perhaps it's the rhythm and repetition of the beats, lulling
me into a trance-like state. It could also be the overall in-your-face
quality of the genre that distracts me from the armpit floating
torturously close to my nose or the briefcase digging into my pelvis.
Lately Lupe Fiasco and
Nas seem to
keep me from elbowing everyone in sight for a few more inches of
standing room. They're pretty peaceful rappers, too; I'm afraid to
imagine what might ensue if I listened to href="">Lil' Jon or href="">Ludacris instead.

Then there are the more mundane tasks, the kind that seem to float by
weekly without ever really affecting your sanity or disposition. While
grocery shopping I find href="">Midlake to be a time-tested
standby. Their rolling, haunting Fleetwood Mac-ish rock just perfectly
complements standing about in the produce section searching for the
perfect white onion. By the time I make it over to the dairy aisle,
it's the jagged, guitar-heavy songs of href="">Maximo Park that help me
choose the right cheese. By checkout I'm usually sans headphones,
preferring to instead eavesdrop on the never-ending bickering between
the elderly and the hapless store clerks. This satisfies my desire for
drama; in this city, the jabs flying over expired coupons far exceed
anything reality television or even gangsta rap can dish out.

Of course there are those albums which I've yet to find a task or
environment for. I'm still trying to wrap my head around href="">M.I.A.'s latest, Kala.
It's such a provocative and culturally busy record that so far it's
best enjoyed with complete attention in front of the stereo. Perhaps I
can find something new to do that will pair well with the frenetic
nature of the songs. Doing the dishes, maybe?

I'd be interested to hear what music you like best when you go about
your day-to-day activities. Do tell!