New Age

June 15, 1994|By BARBARA MALLONEE

Our child sits cross-legged in a half-empty dorm room, writing titles on the J-card for an audio tape. In the morning sun, the dark floor looks as strewn as the sky at night, shiny pennies everywhere catching pinpoints of light. She has stopped packing to play song after song on her stereo, recording the sequence on a blank tape. The medium is the message: ''Love you!'' it says.

It must. Making a mix tape for a friend takes hours, but more than a store-bought present, it delights a generation whose power of purchase is such that pennies lie where they fall. On the college campus, ''from scratch'' is rarely possible, but variations on the theme of ''homemade'' rise like the tide. Hand-woven bracelets. Hand-painted tee-shirts. Birthday cakes, made from a mix, delivered to a doorstep in blinding snow. Stores sell bins and bins of beads in exotic patterns to be strung, one by one, on a clear thread.

Mix tapes rewind past kits and cellophane-wrapped baskets to a time when making gifts was what friends did because everyone made everything. ''Ready-made'' was coined in an industrial age that produced the synthetics that make replacement cheaper than repair. Mass production made manufactured goods so affordable that new generations of consumers buy readily what they do not know how to grow or create.

State-of-the-art studios produce the music young people drive all day to hear live, in concert, at night. Like phonograph records, compact disks have to be purchased; sophisticated audio tapes, too, must be bought, shrink-wrapped in plastic film. But through an odd technological twist, blank tapes can be filled from other tapes, records, CDs. A generation of young pirates has co-opted the pleasure of in-house manufacture. Mix tapes sail new seas. The craft is contemporary, and rarely is the tape mapped out for one friend duplicated for another.

The day we arrived in Boston, our child had paused in the midst of packing, of putting clothes in her father's old valise, of stacking sheets and blankets in a trunk for storage. She should have been washing the mugs in the sink, picking up scraps of paper (and pennies), sweeping dead leaves and petals off the windowsills. We swallowed the obvious questions. For any one of them (what are you doing? why aren't you ready?), the answer would have been the same -- and the smile sweet: It's hard to say goodbye.

The first mix tape I ever saw arrived from her brother when she was in eighth grade and he was a freshman in college. ''The Happy Fun Tape'' it said in bold black letters on its side, a reference I didn't make to a skit on ''Saturday Night Live.'' On the back, Side One songs were listed in pink (''Happy'') and Side Two (''Fun'') songs in (''Lawdy Miss Clawdy!'') purple.

A friend made her a tape called ''Colors.'' She made ''The Twosome Tape,'' a tape called ''Blues'' (''Blue Skies,'' ''Suite: Judy Blue Eyes''), customized tapes with songs whose first letters spelled HAPPY BIRTHDAY and the name of the recipient. Late at night, when she should have been sleeping, I could hear the tape recorder start and stop, the CD tray slide in and out. The next day, when she should have been doing homework, I would find her at the kitchen table, coloring the J-card with paintbox, markers and Crayola's original mix.

Fall, winter, spring, I played the mix tape she gave me when she left for college. Now it is summer, and on starry nights, I swing in the hammock on the deck, mulling things over. Each age has its own idiom that no other ought to try to speak. Young and old share less common ground each year, but the wind blows warm; the far corners of the heart that this next generation charts are kindred not fearsome. I close my eyes. There she sits, in a sea of pennies, a baseball hat turned backward on her head, pen in hand. ''It's called 'The W Tape,' '' she says, her smile luminous. ''Everything begins with W!''

This year, it has seemed so. Why does. What does. Worry. Wait. We'll see.

But she is also right in that endings give rise to beginnings. Swinging back and forth, I look up at the moon and stars in the dark summer night. Wonder What's next? starts with ''W'' too.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.

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