A nine-year-old playing Chopin like that would make a fine Exhibit A of amazing human tricks, but it’s just one of a million zillion permutations. Chopin wrote that. People at Steinway built that coffin of strings and teeth. A whole lot of nameless, faceless people erected various iterations of civilizations — civilizations capable of weaving tapestries of commerce and art and science and trade and negotiation and culture. Said cultures occasionally produce things like a little Chinese girl, banging out a composition from a man who was barely born recently enough to have a photograph of him taken, on a New York piano, while we watch it on an Intertunnel utility that exists in an ether filled with nothing but ones and zeros. Every step of the way is indistinguishable from magic.
She is gifted. Then again, we all are. What are we doing with our gifts?
I’m sitting here wondering whether to use the word “offal,” or the word “awful.” These are the things that keep me up at night. Well, the seventies were. Take your pick.
No one was up at night in the seventies. Well, not so’s you’d notice. You couldn’t buy a gallon of electricity with the proceeds of four misappropriated BEOG grants, so everyone left all their lights off all the time. I don’t know how much time I spent standing on a friend’s darkened porch pressing what I thought was a doorbell, but found out later was just a loose shingle. I’d give up and go home and they’d wonder what happened to me, and ring my phone once and then hang up, because no one could afford a phone call back then, either. You’d send coded messages to one another by counting phone rings. It limited you to a selection of very few coded messages, because after four rings or so from one of those black Ma Bell rotary wall phones with the four-alarm-fire bells in it, you’d answer it just to shut it up, and ruin the whole procedure.
Drugs were much simpler then, I’ll give you that. Rich people, who were somewhere between imaginary and hunted to extinction during the decade, started doing cocaine. But all that stuff accomplished was keeping you up all night so you could worry about how you were going to pay your rent for the next four months now that you spent it on fifteen-minutes-worth of cocaine.To save money, you could get a tubby girlfriend, and bum diet pills off her, which was pure speed. The pills, not the girlfriend. Those would make you stay up day and night, too, but on a budget, and with the money you saved you could find that guy, usually driving a Datsun B210 with an “Gas, Grass or Ass” front license plate bracket, and buy some Quaaludes from him. Then you could gobble those and reach a sort of equilibrium. You could manage to stay awake through all seven minutes of that video, for instance, but it wouldn’t gouge out your retinas and melt your cerebral cortex like it would if you were stone sober or speeding like state trooper.
What, you mean you’re sober right now? Well, don’t watch the video, then. If you’ve already watched it, I apologize, because some things can’t be unseen — like the elephant pants halfway through that extravaganza, or a picture of the President of the United States in a canoe trying to kill a bunny with a paddle.
If you were of a more traditional mind, say, the kind of person that wore a Whip Inflation Now button unironically, you could just abuse alcohol like a normal person. The drinking age was more informal then. You had to be tall enough to put the coins on the counter at the liquor store. That was about it. And the smokes are for my mother, honest.
By the by, I mentioned irony, but everything in the seventies was done unironically. There were no hipsters, so there was no irony. There was Andy Warhol, but he was acting ironically ironically, so he doesn’t count. Those people in that video meant to do whatever it was they were doing. They did it on purpose. You were supposed to like it, and be entertained by it. No, I’m not joking.
As I started to say earlier, alcohol abuse was your only hope to get through the entire 120 months of Seldom and Gommoron the seventies brought upon us. All the bars were full of ferns, brass rails, and disco, tube tops and turd curls, but they served liquor. They served liquor like Niagara serves water. They never shut you off in those places, just handed you a toe tag to go with your bar tab. It was glorious. I think.
Note to my readers from the non-distaff side of the ledger: If the seventies come back, you’ll be buying all the drinks for girls in the bars again. No one went halfsies back then, and men were expected to have a job and everything. Anyway, word to the wise: It’s really hard to get rid of the smell of a Sloe Gin Fizz that’s been vomited on the deep shag floormats in your AMC Javelin, so shut her off after five or so.
[Editor’s Note: From 2011. You know, I’m almost getting used to drinking bilgewater at this point. And there is no editor]
I’m forced to dabble my finger in the turds of the media looking for kernels, just like everybody else. I’m a businessman and need to know what’s what. I can only find out things by inference or by tough experience, though. No one that gets paid to talk about things knows anything. Even if they did, they can’t write. Even if they could, they wouldn’t write anything but propaganda.
But people can be observed, even at a distance, filtered through the septic tank of the media. I like people. Not ‘people’ in the aggregate. I like persons. The People is a lynch mob on a bad day. I’m a person, and I like other persons.
I especially like American persons. America is the most interesting place in the world because it’s just the whole world in one place. We should abolish the United Nations because it’s too narrow a slice of humanity, and just give America its own reality TV show instead.
So, person to person, I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of being ruled — not governed, mind you; governed is in the rear-view mirror, and fading — ruled by a gaggle of metrosexual car salesmen, slovenly ward heelers, and soi-disant intellectuals that can’t operate an apostrophe, never mind something substantial and commendable like a dry cleaners or a brothel.
Wait, never mind, I do know about you. I pay attention to you, the anonymous and the friend alike, because it it my business to know about you. I have to try to understand you well enough to get you to read my writing and put your porridge or your Perrier down on the tables I make. And I’ve never seen everyone as desperate and anxious as they are right now. I’m less anxious and desperate than your average citizen only because everything bad has already happened to me. You’re right to worry, it’s not fun. I lived as an almost-adult in the seventies, and that was pretty bad, but it’s much worse now. The seventies came with its own anaesthetic. We succumbed utterly to malaise. We gave up. No use squirming in the electric chair, after all. Eventually they took the boot off our necks and we had a pretty good run. It’s different now.
The economy is like a traffic jam and an accordion. Most traffic jams have no reason to be. There are lots of cars, humming along. Then someone gets nervous and taps the brakes. Even in a benign business climate, the commerce cars veer from lane to lane, lock up the brakes and exaggerate the effect of the first gentle tap on the pedal from the guy up ahead. The accordion is squeezed, and makes unpleasant noises. Of course they’re unpleasant; it’s an accordion. In a less benign business climate, the driver eating a hoagie and talking on the phone and the woman applying eyeliner while texting crash into each other and things get really bad, really fast. But eventually, if the wreckers and the ambulances sort things out, people get back to zooming along and giving each other the occasional finger. The accordion bellows out. I’ve lived through the accordion going in and out four or five times already.
We’re way past that now. The traffic-jam-accordion is five years in the rear-view mirror. The cars didn’t just tap the brakes and have a fender bender; they left the road and ran over the pedestrians and crashed into the houses and burned down the city. The ambulances were in the shop, the wreckers were up on blocks because their wheels were stolen, and after growing weary of having their four-hour lunches interrupted by the complaints from the people stranded on the highway, the government strafed the survivors instead of helping them. They followed up by napalming their cars, and sending out parking tickets for the burnt-out hulks to any survivors.
Welcome to the new Captain Tammany H. Plutocrat Seawater Economy. Climb aboard the Ship of State, a wholly owned subsidiary of Titanic, Inc, they said. But there isn’t room for everyone on board, and most of us are cast adrift in a rowboat, and there’s nothing but ocean in sight. We sailed until becalmed, rowed until our back gave out, and the map we were given said land was just over the horizon, but of course the horizon, by definition, is always on the horizon. The canteen we were given is dry, but has a Groupon for water in it. The ration cans are filled with nothing but dietary advice. Captain Plutocrat buzzes by from time to time on his cigarette boat, made from the finest flotsam of our lives dashed on the rocks he steered us to, and gives us advice. First it was: You don’t need all your possessions; why not throw them overboard? Then throw the people you don’t like overboard. Then the feeble. Eat the fat ones before they get skinny. Why not chuck the kids in the ocean, too? Finally, when we’re all alone with nothing, he tells us to stop whining and drink seawater if we get thirsty.
Captain Plutocrat has detractors, of course, and their worldview is the opposite of his, but one can’t help but notice they’re on the deck of Captain Plutocrat’s speedboat with him, and their advice if you’re thirsty is to take the seawater rectally instead of orally. Then they bomb off and leave us there.
We drink the seawater and it makes us crazy enough to drink seawater so we drink seawater, and there’s no end to it. It’s our own fault. We tapped the brakes, got in the rowboat; we listened.
No, I’m not trying to tell you I’m a hipster, bustin’ a moby at the table saw while only listening to totally deck obscure artisanal free-range amazeballs beats. That would be so midtown. I just find myself interested in odd things.
I’ve never heard the original of this song. It’s current. The only radio I own is in the truck, so I can only hear current music while I’m driving. There’s a problem. I only leave my house once or twice a month, and whenever I do, I drive in stone cold blissful silence.
So it’s very simple. If you want me to listen to your song, you’d better hustle on over to the Intertunnel, and be sure to bring a seven-foot-tall pagliacco, totes toting a battered Emmett Kelly valise that says Puddles Pity Party on it, and everybody better really be playing things that sound like instruments instead of washing machines halfway through the cycle with all the towels migrated to one side, and you better have that bouffon belt out that song like it’s nobody’s business. And the girls better sway.
[Editor’s Note: From 2012. And there is no editor]
Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, in 1868. He never went to college except to teach at Purdue eventually. He’s famous, in a way, and anonymous in another. He’s the father portrayed in the original Cheaper By The Dozen, using a stopwatch to figure out how to make his family more efficient. That was his thing –efficiency.
He was a bricklayer. Built houses. He got to wondering if the repetition of laying one oblong slug of fired clay atop two others in a bed of mortar could be improved by observing the motions of skilled persons, breaking these exertions down into their component movements, and eliminating the wasted motions in the routines. It can, and he did. I’ve been a hod carrier and mason tender, and I can tell you that working off the ground or a platform the same height as your feet would be backbreaking and slow way to assemble masonry. We always used the footing form boards and leftover planks to assemble ad hoc shelves just lower than waist height behind the mason so that they could turn and pick up a brick and some mortar and go back to the next slot in the wall. I had no idea Clifton Webb, er, Frank Gilbreth came up with the idea less than a century before. It would be literally impossible to calculate how much time, money, effort, and how many worker’s backs Frank Gilbreth (and his wife, who was his partner and carried on after his early death) saved anonymously. His method is now universal and uncontroversial. How many people are incalculably useful to their fellow men?
Gilbreth’s ghost is in so many well-known aspects of everyday life that you can’t hope to find them all. He’s in here, in a scene that’s repeated one way or another in so many movies you can’t count them, never mind the tens of millions of real-life examples:
It’s Gilbreth’s method that’s used to train soldiers to be able to disassemble and reassemble the components of their small arms, even if they are in total darkness. It’s not a pointless trick; if your weapon doesn’t work and you can’t fix it under any conditions, including at night, you might pay for it with your life.
Want more? How about this:
Guess whose idea it was for a nurse to organize and hand instruments as called for to a surgeon. Think of how ubiquitous that method is. It’s universal and uncontroversial. How many people could tell you it was Gilbreth’s idea?
There was a contemporaneous and competing version of efficiency expert abroad in the land with Frank and his wife: Taylorism.
Frederick Taylor is the progenitor of so many things that are in the common language today that he deserves to be discussed with the most influential people of his time. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Almost all the fruit of Taylor’s tree is rotten.
Taylor is the guy standing behind dehumanized workers with a stopwatch, keeping track of bathroom breaks, and generally treating all work as a series of unrelated steps that any unskilled human could do, and constantly finding new ways of measuring it and subdividing it to harangue a little more out of the continually less and less skilled worker. “Scientific Management,” they called it. The Soviet Union loved it. They thought all people were just cogs in a big machine anyway. Most of the terms for malingering in dead-end jobs come from Taylorism. Goldbricking. Dogging it. Taylor observed that when normal people are in a group and everyone has the same duties, it is human nature for everyone in the group to devolve and perform at the level of the least capable and energetic member. His solution was a big expansion of management. He is the busted idol of micromanagement, and by extension, big government.
Taylorism is often touted as the reason you need unions. I don’t see it. The death embrace of unionized workers finding dignity in organized heel-dragging while management tries to find ways to lay everyone off is the most soul-destroying work setting I’ve encountered. Workers are just slaves with two masters instead of one, afraid to work too hard to suit the union, afraid to work too little for the boss. Unionized Taylorism simply puts off the benefits of creative destruction until in the end it leads to just plain destruction. See Detroit. Eventually Taylorism leads to management giving up and finding people for the mind-numbing work overseas, where the boss is the union and the government and the Pinkertons and the mafia rolled into one.
Gilbreth believed in craftsmanship, and in the dignity of productive work. His efficiencies were certainly scientific, in the true sense of the word, but he didn’t look at people as robots, or worse, as farm animals. Look at Taylor’s most famous nostrum for the men he observed unloading pig iron ingots at a factory:
…the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to
recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man
who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic
that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any
other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this
very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding
monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best
suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of
doing this class of work.
That is a profoundly malignant view of your fellow human beings. That view of the world is on display on every Internet comment section I’ve ever seen, now disguised as referring to people capable of only asking if you want fries with that. Unionizing the situation, or keeping the management in one country and the oxen in another (yeah, Apple, I’m looking at you) doesn’t alter the disdain the people in charge have for the people that work for them.
The abolition of drudgery through efficiency should allow people to be craftsmen, and scholars and healers, and counselors, and other meaningful things, and so have rich full lives — not make them obsolete and useless to themselves and everyone else.
Gilbreth or Taylor. Choose. I’m afraid we already have, and chose very, very wrong.
Oh boy, Unorganized Hancock has a new video, filled with Sippican dining room goodness! I must shriek and rend my clothes!
Lots of Beatles remembrances on the Intertunnel these days. It’s been fifty years since they went on Ed Sullivan and put a fork in Elvis. I was just a preschooler, but I remember it clearly. My older brother was already a teenager, and a musician, and let me assure you he gathered our entire family to watch the idiot box that night, as my father used to refer to the television. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about, of course, but I know a fuss when I see one. If the Beatles on Ed Sullivan wasn’t a fuss, it’ll do until one comes along.
The Beatles didn’t cure cancer or anything, but they didn’t cause any either, so let’s not go nuts one way or the other. They were good and effective songwriters and interesting and compelling singers, especially in harmony. I don’t freight celebrities with superpowers. The Beatles’ celebrity eventually so overpowered their talents that even they started ignoring the music they were making. John Lennon seemed to think he really was going to cure cancer using nothing but his attitude, and got lead poisoning for his trouble. People should stick to their knitting.
The Beatles catalog is still useful didactically as well as for entertainment. It’s got a healthy heterogeneous helping of dross threaded through it, but plenty of it still sounds fresh coming from a mouth with a few baby teeth still left in it. If you want to teach your kid to be a busker, it’s close to invaluable.
I once tried to explain to my son how popular the Beatles were. Mass popularity is now both more straightforward to obtain but much, much harder to make universal. It’s currently no big deal to play a dump like Shea Stadium, but conversely I’ve found it quite easy to avoid every contemporary titanic pop act going for decades at a time. There was no avoiding the Beatles, trust me. I told my son that I remembered vaguely that the Beatles once had eleven songs in the Top Ten, because one slot was a tie. Try that, Justin Timberbieberperrygaga.
By the way, my kids can play these songs live, too.
No, don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to own the Boston Red Sox. I don’t even watch the games. I want to buy the Red Sox, and fix them.
I’ll put the stadium back the way it was in 1966. A dreadful olive drab roofless warehouse with a hint of Stalin about it, with big troughs in the Men’s Rooms to piss in. No luxury boxes, either. The only food they’d serve would be hot dogs that make the hot dogs at the Sunoco station look fresh. Then I’d make Barbara Dennerlein the organist. No more piped in rap songs when they call in closers with pot bellies and higher ERAs than IQs. And no riding on carts to the mound, either, like they were obese Walmart shoppers. Maybe donkeys. Make them ride little burros or something. They’re getting Dennerlein, good and hard, the whole way, too. Lady of Spain…
It’s my team, so I’m changing the uniforms from the crap they’ve got now to Swiss Guard oufits. They can wear the metal conquistador helmets when they bat, too. I’m gonna change the rules, and the batter has to run to second right away, right over the mound, and the pitcher has to tackle him if he can. And the ball has to be soaked in tar and set alight when the umpire yells: Play ball!
The umpires will have to dress like mothers-in-law — you know, big muumuus, slippers, curlers in their hair — and they won’t call balls and strikes, just intone,”That’s not where my son would have thrown it,” if the ball’s pitched outside. They’ll make you wipe your feet before you cross home plate, too. Should yield some drama five feet up the baseline.
Dennerlein’s gonna play the national anthem using only her left foot. So let it be written. So let it be done.
I’m not like him; that’s different. He’s obviously laconic and steady and I’m a gibbering idiot and mercurial. I mean I have an affection for him and his like. It’s not the over the top cinemablogtography that won me over, either; I’m immune to that now. I’ve met many men like Dallas in my life, and I always found their steadiness bracing. I swear people that reliable used to make up the majority of the country. I don’t know where they all went.
The hole in your heart left by a beloved and departed spouse or child can never be filled, can it? You just walk around the hole on the way to work forevermore.