Jen Girdish

Writer, editor, reformed shut-in.

A Short Personal History of Alarm Clocks


Sometime after Y2K but before Wikipedia, I turned my Dell desktop into an alarm clock. My boyfriend at the time was a computer science major who showed me how to set up a task so that so that it would play any song on my WinAmp player whenever I wanted. These were the heady early days of Napster, which I had recently learned how to navigate, so when I say any song, I literally mean any song.

The first song I decided to wake up to was the 45-second title song from Parachutes, because I had also just learned about Coldplay. This was around the time that I learned about T1 connections and email viruses and writing clever status messages on IM. It was one of those times when it felt like all the light bulbs were turning on.

I had previously spent most of college listening to writing professors talk about timelessness in fiction, and I spent too much time worrying that if I referred to email in my short stories they wouldn’t seem literary. I spent too much time wondering if I could ever be myself on the Internet. My friends were film majors who never believed that digital cameras could look as good as 35mm.

Setting up my Dell as an alarm clock was a multi-click process. You had to ctrl + start + something + something + something. But I forget, because that was several operating systems and a dozen PCs ago. I’ve since switched to Macs, and they bother to spell out “control.” But when I learned out how to do it, and could do it on my own, I felt like Doc Brown, jerry rigging my breakfast.

In the late nineties, it was still hard to feel like you belonged on the Internet when your only options for personalization were choosing your own bling on Geocities, unless you knew code. Being able to wake up to music on my computer was the first time I learned how to make technology to do something for me. Even thought I was twenty, and supposedly the target audience for everything on the Internet, it still seemed so foreign and non-real, and unlike any of the hoverboards and dehydrated pizza that Back to the Future II promised.

It seemed important in the Back to the Future trilogy that Doc Brown was not a Tony Stark kind of inventor—all the style in the Delorean came from the Delorean itself. You could see you could see the wires in the flux capactor and how it was all cobbled together.

The technology in Back to the Future II seemed lived in, and that made it seem more possible than the more contemporary Matrixes (Matrices?) or Minority Reports.

That 45-second Coldplay song gently woke me up most of that year, and it gave me hope that the future may still have flying cars that I’d feel comfortable driving. I woke up feeling like I could think fourth dimensionally and still be me, you know?

After a year or two, that Dell stopped waking me up, and it crashed whenever I tried to open WinAmp, and no matter how hard I tried to reprogram it, that Dell kept inching closer to the Goodwill donation bin.

After I gave up fighting the future and got a cell phone, it became my alarm clock and I never really looked back. When I started buying iPhones, I liked how minimal the ringtone options were. I was tired of everyone’s personalized ringtones; they sounded like a Geocities site that automatically played a MIDI. I set one ringtone for my morning alarm, and everything else on vibrate.

Several iPhones later, my morning alarm ringtone is an actual full-scale alarm sound, as if our home was being invaded, or someone had sunk my battleship.

Lately, when I hit snooze in the morning, I pick up the phone in my hand and it either rests in my hand, or I lose it in the sheets until the alarm goes off again. And then, two minutes later, M’s goes off. And on and on.

Last week, because I have a $20 iTunes credit, and what else can do you really do with iTunes credits, I wondered if there were any ringtones that I’d want to wake up to, because it’s just too damn loud. I wondered what it would be like to wake up to something I was excited about.

Sometimes I miss seeing the wires.

And that’s why I now wake up to The Power of Love. It doesn’t quite feel like I’m waking up to eggs and bacon at Doc Brown’s, but I feel like I’ve started thinking fourth dimensionally again.