Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Defense of "Can't"

This is America. We are, so we’re told, a nation of doers, not doubters. If there’s one four-letter word we will not abide, it’s the word “Can’t”. Far worse than the dreaded F-bomb, this word signifies disgrace under pressure, wimpiness, wussiness, loserhood. It’s a word that’s only uttered by naysayers, nonbelievers and other nattering nabobs of negativism. “Can’t” means cut-and-run. “Can’t” means you obviously aren’t serious about success. Better to bullshit your way to inevitable failure than to admit that something might be beyond the scope of your abilities.

How this childish attitude toward life got to be so prevalent, I’m not certain. Maybe it’s that story we all had read to us as kids called The Little Engine That Could. In case you missed it, a small switch locomotive is confronted with the task of scaling an extremely steep hill. The little engine keeps on telling himself “I think I can”, or words to that effect as he slowly huffs and puffs his way upward. He eventually makes it to the top of the hill, and gleefully whizzes down the other side to his destination (he obviously wasn’t working for Amtrak!). Meanwhile, back in the real world, author Shel Silverstein points out in his response to that story, "The Little Blue Engine" that "If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain't enough!"

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never criticize anyone who seeks to push the envelope and get more out of their careers, their relationships, their lives. I’ve no complaint against anyone who weighs the odds, considers the facts and then goes for it. Those people are the reason why we have things like personal computers and the Web. And there’s a lot of transformative change that’s been wrought by people who kept on keeping on in the face of what looked at the time like impossible odds. That’s one of the reasons why an African-American man is now president of the United States and not a janitor in Chicago’s city hall. But perseverance is only a virtue if it is tempered with some degree of rationality. There are few people who create more problems than those who blindly throw rationality to the wind and rush in where more sensible folks might fear to tread, lest they be labeled “quitters”.

Many of us became indoctrinated with the gospel of can-do-must-do in grade school. If you had difficulty with a particular assignment or academic subject, your teachers probably said it was because you weren’t trying hard enough. And it wasn’t very long ago that “failing” or “problem” children - those with learning disabilities or other issues - were segregated in “special schools”, or simply put out to the curb for the criminal justice system to haul away. And speaking of learning disabilities, why is it necessary to medicalize the strengths and weaknesses we are all born with? How different is turning a child who cannot read or do differential equations into a patient or a “case” from slapping a “Dunce” cap on his head and making him sit in a corner, as was done decades ago? Our weaknesses are merely the reverse-sides of our strengths. I myself cannot handle numbers. I got to be very familiar with the folks at my college’s remedial math lab until I made up my mind to stop beating my head against the wall, and switched majors from engineering to English. A disappointment? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Yes again.

If people are the least bit honest with themselves, they will admit that there are certain things which they will never be competent at, let alone excel at, no matter how much effort they expend, no matter how many hours they practice, no matter how many times they beat themselves up for failing. Like a suit that’s two sizes two small, some things just don’t fit. Success only happens when you are on the proper path to it.

Americans need to let up, sit down and take a long, deep breath. Contrary to popular belief, life is not a race, a contest, or a fight to the finish in which the man standing next to you is your enemy. There are solid, rational reasons why civilized society has renounced the Law of the Jungle. Permit me to posit the heretical notion here that life is meant to be enjoyed, that competition does have its place (and should stay there), and that in most cases, failure doesn’t need to be a mark of disgrace or the end of one’s life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Great Moments in Advertising (second in a series)

During the years of the “sexual revolution”, the exploitation of sexuality for commercial ends went super-critical. From myriad permutations of the word “intercourse” (for instance, a radio program from that period called “Interchords”) to full-page ads in magazines for a certain brand of blue jeans, which showed only an attractive young woman riding a bicycle, in the buff (not showing the product in the ad? What were they thinking?), things went from mildly amusing to absurd faster than a space shuttle blasting off for the Van Allen Belt.

The proprietors of the electronic emporium being advertised here obviously had no use for subtlety, preferring instead to go as close to the line as they possibly could without landing in court for “obscenity”, no small matter back in those days. The “feet” motif shown in this illustration continues to adorn things like aftermarket auto convertible-tops to this very day.

(Click illustration to enlarge).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Everything I know I learned from record shopping,Part 2

Photo Creative Commons by Ivan Zuber

You cannot tell how a record will sound by looking at the cover art, reading the list of musicians, or checking out which studio it was recorded at or when. The only way to know is to put it onto a turntable, put the needle on it and listen to it, however briefly.

Just because "everyone likes it" doesn't mean that it's right for you.

If someone tells you that something sucks (or is fantastic) without offering a solid, rational explanation, that's proof that you need to check it out for yourself.

Oldies radio reminds us that a little nostalgia can be fun, but living in the distant past isn’t good for you.

You can hear something that everybody's raving about and wonder what the big deal is. You can hear something that everyone makes fun of and not think it's so bad.

The mainstream is like an 8-lane highway; big, straight, flat, efficient and predictable. And it seldom goes anyplace interesting. Cultural side roads can be much harder to navigate, but you'll probably find much more interesting and rewarding experiences on them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The following is a public service announcement.

This Saturday, February 14th, is Valentines’ Day, a holiday whose existence is crucial to the profit margins of the makers of mediocre chocolate products, the manufacturers of red, heart-shaped things, and the vendors of banal greeting cards. It is also a celebration of traditional romantic love. Those of us who are without partners, for whatever reason, often feel jealous of the legions of allegedly happy couples who are presumably smooching and cuddling the day away and will most likely head for the bedroom for an evening of conjugal bliss.

Allow me to perform a reality check. First of all, it just so happens that not all couples are happy. The divorce rate is around 50% and like the unemployment rate, the statistic does not tell the whole story. It doesn’t count nominally-intact marriages in which the love (and sex) dried up years ago, ones where one or both partners is a victim of abuse, and so on. Things aren't that much better for non-married couples who stay in loveless relationships simply because they cannot bring themselves to do otherwise.

Secondly, being single isn’t a disorder requiring costly or desperate measures to correct. We all begin our lives as single people. Some of us who are now happily coupled may be forced apart by circumstance. Those of us who are single by choice deserve to have our decision respected. Those of us who are single through no fault of our own deserve support, not pity or scorn.

Traditional stereotypes of single people range from the man who couldn’t attract a woman if he walked into a brothel with a fistful of hundred-dollar bills, the insouciant playboy who spends all his time going from party to orgy to swinger’s club, the nymphomaniac who lures dozens of (mostly married) suitors up to her penthouse apartment each day, to the old maid with no companions apart from her 27 cats. How many people like these actually exist in the real world?

No lover, however devoted, is a substitute for a social support network. Friends are not luxuries.

No one will deny that living by oneself can get lonely and frustrating at times. But anyone with a firm grip on reality will also recognize that the all-too-common practice of “settling”, coupling up with someone who just happens to be available whether or not he or she is actually a good match, can make things much worse in the long run, as illustrated by the above satirical Youtube clip, and the obscenely-high incomes of divorce attorneys.

As many single people the world over will tell you, being single does not mean taking a virtual vow of chastity! True, solo-sex is the primary mode of sexual expression for a lot of single people, and it has an undeservedly bad reputation. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. Surgeon General got fired from her job for suggesting that solo sex might be good for one’s general well-being, a point which a recent BBC report reiterated. Too often it has been regarded as the last resort of losers. This attitude needs to change, and fast.

While I’m at it, I’d like to strongly recommend that the adjective-turned-noun “single” never again be used to refer to people without partners. When used in this manner, the word has all the characteristics of a derogatory epithet. It suggests someone who is too unattractive, irresponsible or dumb to attract and hold a partner.

Lastly, but definitely not least, I must emphasize this final point: Valentines Day is a commercial holiday. It has far, far less to do with romance than with moving loads of dodgy theme products. Love, after all, isn’t about stuff. Love is about intimacy, about pleasure. Put another way, love isn’t when you buy your partner a heart-shaped fuzzy pillow. Love is when you do her laundry or sweep the floor because it needs to be done. Love isn’t sending her a bouquet of flowers. Love is when you spend a rainy Saturday afternoon in a junkyard looking for parts for her car.

Having said all that, happy Valentines’ Day to everyone, coupled or not!

Random recommended reading: - Being single as a conscious choice.
Blogher - Pleasing yourself, aka going solo. (NSFW)
Solo Sex guru Betty Dodson (NSFW)
Interview with Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love and The Female Thing.
An American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers article about collaborative divorce.

Is this your lucky day?

Photo Creative Commons Cayusa

Today marks a sea-change for The Fuddler. From this day forward, The Fuddler will be updated at least once a week, on Friday. And what better Friday to begin with than Friday the 13th!

Speaking of which, the traditional belief about Friday the 13th is that it’s unlucky. I myself have never experienced any more or less bad luck than usual on any Friday the 13th. What I have noticed is that some rather strange things sometimes occur on that day.

As a f’rinstance, years ago I lived in an apartment in a late-19th-century home, on a main street, which was showing signs of age. The building had recently been purchased by an athletic man in his thirties who turned out to be a very skilled renovator. He went through each apartment, stripping every room down to the bare studs, replacing the obsolete, turn-of-the-20th-century knob-and-tube wiring, extracting the occasional carcass of a long-dead squirrel, installing new copper water pipes in place of aging galvanized steel ones, putting in modern, energy-efficient windows and finishing the job with new drywall and a fresh coat of paint. He once showed me how he leveled the warped and bowed floor in one apartment by painstakingly installing a new floor over it. On the evening of Friday the 13th he was hard at work ripping out the cracked and discolored original plaster ceiling in a room directly below my kitchen. In the process, he found an old cast-iron stove plate from a wood-burning stove (all of the stoves in the house at the time were either gas or electric). On top of the plate were thirteen hollow-point .22-caliber long rifle shells. Neither I or my landlord could figure out who had put the shells there, when or why.

Another Friday the 13th incident which sticks in my mind happened while I was on the air at my college’s radio station in the early 1980's. It was a free-form station, which meant that instead of spinning John Cougar Mellencamp, Madonna or Tom Petty, most of our DJ’s played “new wave”, punk or hardcore. Since much of the student body was from New York City and Long Island we also played whatever dance music was popular in the New York underground scene, including a good quantity of early hip-hop. So, there I was that afternoon, spinning a Talking Heads album when the control room phone rang. I expected it to be someone calling in a request. What it was instead was a young man from the Republican National Committee. It should be noted that this was around the time that one of then-president Ronald Reagan’s proposed budgets was making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Like those from previous years it seriously pumped up defense spending (along with the federal deficit) while drastically reducing funding for silly things like education, regulatory agencies, health, and financial aid for college students. Anyway, the nice man from the RNC told me that his organization had put together an audio press release to help dispel any possible misunderstandings about the budget which people might have on account of the liberal media. He asked me if I would mind airing it. Sure, I told him, I would most certainly consider it my patriotic duty as an American to air it. In those pre-digital days news actualities and other material were delivered over the telephone. I put my caller on hold and cued up an album side on one of the control room’s two turntables. After starting the album side, I opened the station’s recording studio, put a fresh reel of 1/4-inch tape on one of our two reel-to-reel tape recorders, patched the phone line into the mixing board, picked up the phone in that room and told Mr. RNC to let ‘er rip. After I’d “downloaded” the rather slickly-produced sales pitch for that year’s round of Reagan budget cuts, I took the reel into our main studio. When the album side had faded out, I played the tape on the air, the whole 3 or 4 minutes of it, following it with my own comments and analysis.

However weird or scary this Friday the 13th might be, it can never hold a candle to the day which follows it, one which causes hearts to pound and palms to sweat, one which makes them commit the most degrading acts of desperation, one which engenders fear and loathing like no other.

I refer of course to Valentines Day. More on that later!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Way He Walked...

Photo Creative Commons 2008 by Yves Lorson.

It has come to my attention that a great punk icon has passed away.

Those of you who are familiar with The Cramps know of Lux Interior’s snarling, piercing vocals. You know of his original songs (co-written with his wife Ivy) with titles like “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?”, his almost parodic treatment of dusty pop war-horses like “Lonesome Town”, or his band’s thrashing reading of Hasil Adkins’ “She Said...” which outdoes Mr. Adkins’ bloodcurdling original, no mean feat.

I remember hearing The Cramps’ debut 12-inch, Gravest Hits back in ‘79. I was suitably impressed to say the least! The record sounded to me like it had been made on a thrift-shop cassette deck using the cheapest grade of tape available. The reverb on most of the tracks was the classic Lincoln-Tunnel variety. All the previously-buried 1950's rockabilly cliches had been newly exhumed, hosed down and given a fresh coat of red-lead paint. In an age of Teflon-slick FM rock with synthesized orchestras and 20-minute drug-fueled guitar solos by people who flew to gigs in Lear Jets, The Cramps’ gritty back-to-basics style stood out.

News reports say that Lux died of a bad heart, which makes no sense to me. He and his band had plenty of heart. So long, Lux. It’s too bad you had to split. The music world needs people like you more than ever. My sincerest condolences to Ivy, the band and all of your fans the world over.