When Steve Jobs, in his faded blue jeans and black turtleneck sweater, introduced the original iPod in 2001, he said, “This amazing little device holds a thousand songs, and it goes right into my pocket.” He turned his head and slowly slid the silver and white device into his left pocket.
This story was a topic of conversation with a friend of mine after a long day riding motorcycles through the weaving roads of the Allegheny Mountains. We were talking about how technology had changed so many things in life as we walked towards a small tavern tucked into the corner of the Penn Wells Lodge in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
The sign said, “Live Music Fridays – Walt Hoffman on Piano.” As I turned the corner into the establishment, I saw a string of pockmarked wooden tables pulled together with ten or so customers gathered around, who looked as though the weekend had bloomed a few hours back. Two women danced around the table to the music amidst a cacophony of laughter, storytelling, singing, and rhythmic notes floating through the room from an upright piano. The music came from the fingers of Walt, a sturdy man in a white short-sleeved shirt draped by a black vest and highlighted by a keyboard blue tie. The musician looked up with a smile that said, “Can you believe I am getting paid to do this?”
A man in big black-rimmed glasses who worked by day in the local gas and oil industry and was half Walt’s age rose with a fiddle in hand and joined in. Another local opened his clarinet case and started to assemble his instrument. Soon there was a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, shouting jam going on atop the mountain in this 100-year-old tavern. But the whole place centered on Walt, who without a note in front of him, played one song after another to the delight of the crowd.
Walt, with his golden brown eyes tucked above his Santa Claus cheeks, sat at the piano like he was sitting next to his best friend. Walt has laid his agile, well worn fingers upon a keyboard for 72 years. He never took a music lesson in his life and can’t read music. He just taught himself.
When asked about all this he said, “I retired a few years back, but they called me up and said they wanted me to keep playing.” And play he does, at age 82 with great joy, ease, and purpose.
My friend leaned over to me while the music flowed and said, “Screw a thousand songs in your pocket. What about a thousand songs in your head?!” That is exactly what Walt had, a thousand songs accumulated in his head. Songs from throughout the history of jazz music stuck in his mind as though he’d grabbed them up with a lint roller.
As the evening wound down, I thought how much of life has moved individuals towards being spectators versus participants. That is, we will watch a sport versus play a sport. We will listen to music independently on our iPods versus playing music or hearing it performed live. We will watch a movie versus creating life experiences that could be the basis of a movie. We will observe someone volunteering versus being in the arena ourselves.
I think we can learn something from Walt and people similar to him. Like the Slow Food movement, which encourages people to get closer to the food they consume in order to better their lives and the world, Walt could be the inspiration for a Slow Experience movement to change how we live our lives. We would ask the question, “Am I creating the experience or am I watching someone else have the experience? Am I IN the movie or am I WATCHING the movie?” I am convinced that the more we are creating the experiences of our lives, the more meaning and joy we will find. At least, that sure seems to be true for Walt.
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