I specifically remember listening to National Public Radio when I was seven. It was the first dose of purely American news I ever fully digested. We had lived on a military base in Stuttgart Germany for the past three years. Military orders and a few moving trucks brought us to south Texas, a place that served patriotism super-sized. Audibly famous radio reporter Don Gonyea explained the items on the menu. It was NPR talk that made me realize my mother was incredibly different from her military wife counterparts, a unique inhabitant of one of the reddest states in the nation. “Liberal” and “primary” were words I sprinkled into family dinners before I knew their precise definitions. Morning Edition played when I got ready for school, Car Talk was always on after my soccer games, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me made my dad laugh.
[Later on that year?] When I was in the second grade, my mom purchased John Mayer’s first album, Room For Squares. The tracks of that album became the background music of my early years on earth. If it wasn’t filling our Volvo, it was emanating from our home stereo system. If it wasn’t available for play, it was hovering on the surface of my mother’s lips and vocal chords. She thought he was a genius. “Have you heard ‘No Such Thing’? This is a kid who was a total nerd in high school and look at where he is now.” By the age of eight, I knew every word to every song on the album. Heavier Things dropped in 2003. In my mind, it was the work of a musical god. I went so far as to debate one of my carpool drivers on the merits of the track “Split Screen Sadness”. Mrs. Scheffler found it too poppy, while I found it catchy and a unique departure from his previous work. I was a third grader. By the time Continuum came out, I was a fan of unparalleled devotion. I considered “Dreaming With a Broken Heart” to be the greatest song of all time.
I started watching Friends when I was ten, a consequence of the Dugan household’s very first television and antenna. We had a grand total of ten public channels. One played episodes every weekday night from 9:00 to 9:30 pm. My mother made this discovery before I did. And despite the fact that most of the references were over my head and that it was a relatively late hour for television, she let me watch. When she felt guilty about some sexually explicit comment that no doubt confused me, her signature phrase was “Remember, this is just a show. Real life isn’t like this.” But I hoped that it was. I wanted to live in a well-decorated New York apartment with a crazy neighbor and a crew whose lives were so entertaining that national audiences found themselves laughing.
Some of the time, I find myself acting as a cultural nomad. My iTunes contains both dirty rap and bluegrass, my closet holds studded black tank tops and cashmere cardigans, my bookshelves hold works by JK Rowling and Ralph Ellison. But more often, I find myself referencing NPR stories, scrolling through artists on my iPod until I reach John Mayer, and quoting Friends. I know them well. I can identify reporters by their voice alone, I know every word to every song, and I consider myself one of the gang.
My preferences aren’t something I give much thought to. They so heavily involve my past, something I rarely consciously reconnect with. I prefer to think of myself as living fully in the present, so on top of everything that I am already planning for the future. In my mind, nostalgia is for the weak, and so I convince myself that I am repressing it, that I don’t experience it. Music gets me from one point to another and the news makes me an informed citizen and television keeps me entertained. I like to think of my tastes as dynamic, current and automatic, growing up just as I do. But they aren’t.
The most significant aspects of my personal preferences involve comfort. I associate Robert Seagull with weekend family pancake breakfasts. The conversation topics of the Central Perk Cafe made me laugh with my mother and the first friend I made in Catholic middle school. John Mayer released Battle Studies when I was in a huge fight with my friends and Born and Raised 12 days after the sudden death of my godfather. My life has been a series of transitions, changes, instability, the pillars of a Navy brat. Constants were and are rarities. And while the news of NPR can be biased, the humor of Friends is juvenile, and the music of John Mayer is vanilla, I don’t have to try to like it or understand it. It is worn in. It is safe.