Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Flying Down to Rio, the hard way

Just discovered this at the end of an otherwise-unremarkable old '30s musical, Flying Down to Rio. I started watching it coz it had Fred and Ginger in it, but as it turned out they were only in it for about 3 minutes, doing one dance number that wasn't anywhere near their best. This was their first movie turn however, and they stole the show.

That said, I was about to ditch the thing in boredom when THIS incredible sequence came on. It's almost surreal in its gleeful beauty, with sexy but innocent young women cavorting on the wings of planes. If you look closely at 1:33, you'll notice some of the girls suddenly lose their dresses in the breeze and continue their wriggly dance, apparently, in their birthday suits. At 1:45, you'll see that their shirts are practically transparent, no bras on underneath. We'd call that a "nip-slip" and cut the scene out of network TV. This was pre-Code Hollywood, obviously, before the bitter repression of the Hays Office took all the fun out of everything and sex had to be implied with a raised eyebrow and a crooked pinkie.

Maybe this was all done on a sound stage, but it looks pretty good to me. Even the music is free-spirited and energetic,  a touch wild, foretelling the delightful Piccolino number at the end of Top Hat (my favorite Fred and Ginger movie: oh, that dress made out of feathers!). There's a sort of vibrating hum in the background suggesting, I suppose, plane engines or - vibrators?

The world according to Mediocrates







If there are no mistakes, then why am I such a screwup?

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
Oscar Wilde

Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.
Benjamin Franklin

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.
Bruce Lee

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.
John Wooden

Making mistakes is the privilege of the active. . . Only those who are asleep make no mistakes.
Ingvar Kamprad

OK THEN! I've been wanting to write about all this for some time now, and it seems even more relevant in light of some recent events.

I am constantly coming across quotes about how desirable it is to make mistakes. We should make lots and lots of them, or else it proves we aren't doing anything. These quotes can come from business wizards like Steve Jobs, or spiritual bigwigs like Buddha, or meatball-eating furniture magnates like Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad (whom I always thought was an actor in one of those . . . movies . . .  you know the ones I mean).

The reality is somewhat different.

I think people say these things to try to alleviate the excruciating embarrassment and even humiliation that can arise from a single mistake. They're trying to make themselves feel better, not just you, and not just for past or present-day mistakes but as a sort of immunization against the humiliation of mistakes as yet unmade.

People are fired because of a single mistake, and their careers and self-esteem sometimes never recover. People lose their spouses because of a mistake (an affair? It happens, believe it or not), changing not just the course of their lives, but the lives of children and grandchildren and all their friends, who may not know on which side their loyalties should fall. (It's always one way or another, folks.)

One mistake, even one clumsy social error, can lodge itself in people's memory like one of those sticky-burr things. If you are kind and gracious 99% of the time, and fuck up 1% of the time, guess what people will remember?

I won't mention any names here, because I can't, but I once worked with an agent who ran into some problems approaching a publisher. The managing editor said, "I hate Margaret Gunning!" When asked why, he said, "Because she panned one of our authors." Something like ten years earlier, I had written a "negative" review of one of their books (I had certainly not trashed the book but felt it didn't cohere, which matched the opinion of the majority of other reviewers).

Was it a "mistake"? I was just doing my job, which is NOT to write synopses or dishwater generic non-reviews providing no critical analysis whatsoever. But even if it wasn't a mistake, it seemed to have created a rancor which would live forever. To that particular publisher, no matter what else I did to redeem myself,  my name would always be mud.

So imagine what would have happened if I HAD made a mistake, even a little one!

I've misfired on emails before, sent them the wrong way.  Doesn't everyone do this? I thought so, until I did it myself. Again, it was a publisher, and it was a mistake, and no one said "it's OK to make a mistake, it's the way we learn" or anything like that. Instead I got an email back saying, "Do you realize what you've just done?" You could hear their gasp of horror.  According to them at least, I had done so much damage with a single click that it turned out to be irreparable. Those people will never forget. And there was nothing vindictive in my email, nothing abusive, just information they should not have received.

I goofed. I clicked. I was dead.

Is it just me? If it's just me, I might as well commit suicide right here and now. If I am to believe all these wonderful quotes and the people who insist you should make as many mistakes as you possibly can in the course of a day (and maybe they mean "mistakes" like borrowing someone's pen and forgetting to give it back), then perhaps it's true. Perhaps I'm the only one who suffers massive repercussions from a mistake, hostility, rancour, and the feeling that what I've done is totally and permanently unforgiveable.

So OK. Let's take a look at these quotes that everyone finds so comforting:  Kubler-Ross for a start.

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.

Kubler-Ross became world-famous for her "stages of grief" theory, which automatically found near-universal acceptance with therapists and clergy and every other type of counselor until someone decided, many decades later, to do some research on the subject. They discovered that there are no stages of grief, and that everyone processes grief differently. The original premise was "stages of dying", so Kubler-Ross was not entirely responsible for this misinformation. Her theory applied to people who were terminally ill and trying to come to terms with approaching death.

I don't think she ever intended these stages to be lodged in neat compartments, to be worked through sequentially over a set period of time, but that's what happened. Therapists began to require patients to "go through the stages", and if they didn't, they were pushed to do so. Come on, it's time for the anger stage now! Why aren't you angry? And how about some bargaining? You can't go on to acceptance until you do.

So what was the mistake here? The biggie was universally embracing an untried idea just because it sounded good. Her theory was appealing because those neat stages helped to regulate and contain something that most people find overwhelming, a force of nature that seldom shows any mercy.

I'd like to believe - OK, I wouldn't like to believe, because it's too out of touch with reality - that "all events are blessings given to us to learn from". I know New Age people who believe this, but I can't. I can't because I have known people who have lost infants to disease and children to horrific accidents and had to try to pick up the pieces. I can't because I watch the news every day and see with what horrifying regularity people are casually slaughtered by crazed gunmen who one day decide they'd like to spill a little blood.

These are the extremes, but there are plenty of them. I can't believe "all events are blessings" when I watch a documentary about Auschwitz or Dachau. (Calling the Third Reich a "mistake" is the understatement of all time, but with neo-Nazism thriving and even considered "cool" by some young people, did we really learn from it?)  I am still trying to figure out how an intelligent person can embrace this obvious fallacy. If your son commits suicide, is it a blessing? If you lose all your money and become homeless? I won't go on.

I can't compare events in my own life with tragedies of this magnitude. But I have experienced the alarming ways in which technology makes it even more costly to make a mistake.

I recently experienced one of those examples of the hellfire the internet can put you through. Because of something I wrote, I wasn't just roasted: I was mocked, excoriated, ridiculed, called nasty names, and made to look thoroughly stupid on someone's blog.

Obviously I had made a mistake. It was a bad one, I saw it quickly, deleted it and did what I could to make amends for it. I'd posted something that should never have been posted. Since I could not turn back the hands of time and un-write it, I could only do what I could do, and keep it brief, because over-apologizing is the biggest mistake anyone can make.

But I don't think it did one iota of good, and at best I was probably seen as covering my ass in a  gesture of self-preservation. I realize now that this was a mistake that might just live forever. "Delete" doesn't do anything to erase people's memory.

It doesn't matter if I did 99 things right. That hundredth thing may spell the end of my perceived integrity and worth as a writer, and even as a human being. And now that we are in the age of blogging and internet and social media, one mistake can explode massively in a matter of seconds. It can go viral, reaching hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people in the blink of an eye.

Blessings given for us to learn from? By the time we get around to learning from them, we may be ruined. Human brains always retain the negative, we seem to have evolved that way, while positive and neutral events just sort of wash away with the tide. Combine that with the supernova-level, instantaneous communication that exists today, and you could have a recipe for disaster.

I approach Facebook and other such systems with leeriness now. If I try to "friend" someone and it turns out they are the friend of someone whose book I panned in 1998, might they diss me on Facebook, their blog or elsewhere for being an opportunist, rude or just plain stupid? Do I "friend" more than one publisher, or will that be a conflict of interest? If I ONLY friend one publisher, what sort of idiot am I who can't do business with social media, which is in large part what it is set up to do?

But if you admit that, oh boy. Embarrasment! Everyone looks away. Everybody knows Facebook is just a friendly chat over the back fence, and anyone who even thinks it might be a form of making business contacts is either gauche or completely mercenary.  An elephant has suddenly appeared in the room and deposited 50 pounds of shit, and nobody knows where to look.

Maybe I was just behind the barn door when the rules were passed out. But it seems to me we'd all better watch our step. Making mistakes is a luxury which I think is the province of those alpha personalities who end up founding Ikea and changing therapeutic practice forever. The rest of us poor schlubs had better beware.

P. S. This post was written before the death of Alex Colville. The painting still remains one of my all-time favorites, speaking with no words about forces which are about to collide with catastrophic impact. It strikes me as strange that artists get to make these kinds of statements, but when writers do it they're being "negative" and going against the tide of happy-face philosophy that - as far as I am concerned - collides with reality.


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