Last month, my family all gathered in our home in Denver to celebrate Christmas. My stepson, Anthony, flew in from West Point Military Academy. My sister prepared a beautiful seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner, and the following morning we all opened our presents. The first box I opened was from my wife, Jill. It was a vinyl record player. Months ago, I had mentioned to her offhand that I wish I could play all the old records in our basement again—she never misses a beat.
I knew immediately which record I wanted to play: “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel. It was my first record; I got it for Christmas way back in 1980. I gently slid the record out of the tattered sleeve for the first time in decades and blew off the dust. The record was old and worn out—I must have played it thousands of times as a kid—but through all the pops and cracks, Billy’s opening lick of “You May Be Right” was as smooth as the day I first heard it in my bedroom more than forty years ago.
As Jill, Anthony, Caroline, and Tate were opening their presents, I was immediately transported back to one of my earliest childhood memories. I was with my dad in the basement of our house in Suffern, New York, listening to his record player. Even though he was an English teacher, he had a real ear for music. He could listen to a tune on the radio and then play it note for note on the piano. Back then, you couldn’t just double-click a song on Spotify or Apple Music and hear it through a Bluetooth speaker. First, he pulled the record sleeve off the shelf; it was usually Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, or Andy Williams. He carefully wiped it down it with a cloth and placed it on the record player. Then he dialed the machine up to 33 1/3 RPM and slid the needle into the groove. I remember the crackles and the pops and how the record would skip if the needle was getting dull. I spent hours at a time in that basement with my dad, staying up too late and listening to the Great American Song Book and the Rat Pack.
When I think about it, it’s not the music I cherished; it was spending quality time with my father. It’s the same with other old-school mediums. When I open a newspaper and smell the ink, I think of my grandfather reading at the breakfast table. When I open a book and feel the page in my fingers, I remember my mom reading to me in bed. When I pick up a pen, I remember how she made me write thank-you letters to everyone who went to my birthday party. When I sit in a movie theater, I remember holding hands with my high school girlfriend, Lori Nolan, who died a day after she turned nineteen. While technology has made our lives better in so many ways, I worry that my children won’t have the same meaningful associations. No streaming service can replace the whirr of the movie projector. No video game can replace rolling the Monopoly dice. And no matter what app you open, an iPhone just doesn’t have the same beauty and warmth as listening to Frank Sinatra on a vinyl record player by a roaring fireplace.
Funny thing is, a little while after I opened Jill’s gift, Caroline opened one of her presents. It was film for her polaroid camera. She laughed with joy as she clicked the shutter, pulled out the picture, and shook it until it developed. I couldn’t help but smile. She would remember this Christmas for the rest of her life. She would remember being with her family and shaking those polaroid pictures and laughing when it turned out my eyes were closed or that Tate was sticking out his tongue. Those memories would be just as vivid as the ones of my dad and me in the basement.
More people are realizing that we’ve been missing something for the past few decades. I read recently that for the first time since the early 1990s, vinyl records outsold CDs. There’s so much demand that there’s a 12-month delay for new records. Hardcover books are outselling eBooks even though they cost twice as much. We cherish our records and hardcovers and Polaroid cameras not because they’re better than a smartphone, but because they engage our emotions and bring us closer with the people we love.
And so, my New Year’s resolution is to make my relationships a little more vinyl. Whenever possible, instead of texting my kids, I’m going to call so I can hear their voice. Instead of calling my friend Andy, I’ll drive over to his house for a nightcap. Instead of sending an e-mail to a client, I’ll write them a meaningful handwritten letter. Instead of streaming a Netflix show, Jill and I will hop in the car with the kids and head to the theaters. And on cold nights, we’ll turn off our phones, gather by the fire, and listen to Billy Joel on the record player. I’ll smile knowing that with every pop and crackle, with every skip of the needle, we’re coming a little closer as a family.