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Sinister Shuffle 

by RICHARD H. MILLER & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & used to call them the Pod People. Then I became one. The assimilation seemed random. It was Wednesday, 10 pm. I walked across Riverside at Lincoln. I looked to the right. Something with wires sat atop the USA Today news box in front of the post office. I was skeptical. The last time I spotted a strange wired object was on West Fifth, over by the Ronald McDonald House. It lay in the gutter, egg-shaped, the size of a plum tomato. Wires led to a knurled dial. I nudged the little egg with the tip of my boot. It began to vibrate, rattling against the asphalt. It sounded angry. Probably was. I would be too, thrown out into the cold like that. I hurried away. Afterward I wiped my boot with rubbing alcohol.





So I had few expectations when I went back to the news box. But there it was. Black case, earphones. An iPod Shuffle. 512 mb, Version 1. (If it's yours, please let me know at 2Bad4U@finderskeepers.com.)





Seems like these days every zombie-eyed kid and many adults have electrical leads in their ears, like FBI agents or research monkeys. A bad idea. You'd miss the birdsong and the darling laughter of small children. Not to mention the hearing damage, especially for young people whose brains are, shall we say, still awaiting development opportunities.





When I was their age, we didn't have iPods. We stood in front of RV-sized speakers at Peter Frampton concerts, letting the percussive force of the bass tear the buttons off our madras shirts and blow our ponytails back like contrails.





I decided to risk my remaining hearing. First, I downloaded the software. iTunes listed every embarrassing scrap of music on my computer, things I had long forgotten. I attached the iPod. Do you want to sync? iTunes asked me. I'm already sinking fast, I said, and hit the button, loading everything in random order.





Allegedly random order, that is. Herb Alpert cozying up to AC/DC? Linda Ronstadt cheek to grizzled jowl with Neil Young? I sensed the long arms of the Apple empire reaching for me.





The earphones fit into my ears as sweetly as a dime fits into my nose. But they're not earphones. Please. Earphones are so last decade. They're earbuds. I never figured out why. Judging by the comfort level, "bud" is not short for "buddy." That leaves the botanical bud, as if parasitic seeds had been implanted in my cochlea, the long white tendrils seeking their next host.





I hit the play button and walked downtown. At first, the inability to hear the outside world is discombobulating. But I adapted. My other senses grew stronger. My sense of thirst, for example. Next stop, the Swamp.





I turned up the volume. No knobs, just a little ring shaped suspiciously like the cross-section of a tentacle. Linda Ronstadt sang as I walked down the Monroe Street hill. A medical copter floated silently toward Deaconess. An SUV glided by. Shards of glass twinkled in the street lights. It was magical, like watching a music video after taking too many cold tablets. I wanted to dance or at least sing along. Suddenly, I knew, knew for an exact certainty, that I really was going back someday, come what may, to Blue Bayou.





When I got downtown, I turned off the iPod. As I walked, businesses offered their own soundtracks: David Bowie, Glen Campbell, something Greek and Eric Clapton. Sounded like the Spokane Shuffle, Version 1982.





I turned the iPod back on and walked down Second. I began to feel less tethered, probably due to losing one of my five senses. So I did the logical thing. I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt, cutting off my peripheral vision. There. Down to 3.5 senses. When I left the Swamp, two pints and one port later, I figure I was down to maybe 2.6.





My new liberation from sensory input, plus the beer, helped me decipher Apple's subliminal message: All music is one music, no matter how it's shuffled together. Humans, too, are variants of the same pattern. We are like lentils, our boundaries softening as the soup heats, flavors merging, individuality growing obsolete. We are all one, Apple was saying. Join the Pod Collective.





I headed home. Neil Young came on. "Keep on rockin' in the free world," he advised. Yes, I said. Yes, I shall keep rockin'. I shall resist. I shall be free. Freedom. Freeee-dom! I reached to pluck out the earbuds. Too late. The song had changed -- by chance, one was meant to think.





Herb Alpert. Damn him. Damn his trumpet of silver. I resisted. Herb called in the big guns. The Tijuana Brass.





My shoulders slumped. I shoved my hands in my pockets. My eyes closed halfway (2.2 senses). I lowered my gaze to the sidewalk, seeing my feet through the keyhole opening of my hood (1.9). One shoe appeared, then the other. One, the other, over and over, in cadence to "A Taste of Honey."





Apple had won. I had been assimilated. I was doing the iPod Shuffle.
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