10/21/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014


Sitting at the stoplight, absentmindedly singing along to "The Pina Colada Song" on the radio, I suddenly heard what sounded like a dog rhythmically barking its way out of a bucket of yogurt. The vehicle next to me had some very interesting music blaring from its open windows, and in that instant, I felt very old. I resisted the temptation to ask the driver the name of the group or even the "song" that I was hearing, but it wasn't easy. I couldn't help but wonder what sort of a title that would have. It sounded angry and violent. He loved it.

I drove away thinking about the passage of time, remembering the first time I had heard that Pina Colada tune when I had just turned 18, and wondering if that scruffy young man will ever look back in his life someday and think fondly about where he was when he first heard that ... dog-in-the-bucket-of-yogurt song.

I don't know if its the age I've mystically achieved or if its just me, but hearing certain songs can click off a chain reaction of equal parts nostalgia and regret that I can never seem to head off at the pass. Innocently driving to the grocery store, I'll hear Sister Sledge singing "We Are Family" and remember sitting in the gas lines in my grandmother's Mercury Montclair. Then I think I wish I had kept that car, and I should have gone to college, and I can't believe gas was ever under a dollar a gallon, and what the heck have I done with all this time that has passed. I hear the Eagles sing "Best of My Love" and I am 14 again and silently aching for my friend Lisa, then I remember we were briefly together a few years later, and I am filled with sorrow and frustration that she dropped off the earth for over 25 years before re-emerging to profess her love for me. It's amazing how an old song can revive an emotion long thought dead.

Some would argue that the key to this whole thing is to not listen to songs from the past. But then I'd miss so many other moments of pure joy, like feeling the lazy summer afternoon when I got into that old Montclair to leave Jean Robinson's house and heard "Take the Long Way Home" for the first time. I'd never get to re-live the butterflies in my stomach as I held the phone up to my cassette player before the advent of Caller ID and serenaded Jackie Hughes with that rousing "oogachaka" version of "Hooked on a Feeling" without ever identifying myself or saying a word. I hear Gary Wright singing about his love being alive, and I am sitting in the backseat of a car with Lisa and her family, watching her mother as she danced in the front seat. "Slow Ride" props me up on a wooden bleacher in the Walt Whitman High School gym as I watch Sue Ward and our Walter Johnson pom pom squad compete to be the best in the county. And when I hear the Beatles singing about "Rocky Raccoon," I can see my mom in blue jeans and flannel shirt, with a blacked-out tooth and floppy cowboy hat, performing a hilarious lip syncing routine on stage in the Women's Club of Bethesda talent show.

Some memories stand alone, and the songs that guard them are a kind of personal time machine that can transport me to a place so real I can almost smell it. Summertime and barbecues, a gas station and vinyl seats, and the loft above the next door neighbor's garage. I am not ready to lose those places, and I wish I could be there when that boy at the intersection hears the dog in a bucket of yogurt song and waxes nostalgic about the places it takes him, because somehow I think those places would be terrifying.