Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2002 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Greg Crosby

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How to survive our times | As a member of the human race I'm interested in people. That interest has made me somewhat an observer of human nature, of which I often write and happily share with my readers. I observe the human condition with more than a bit of morbid curiosity, in much the same way as some people slow down and stare at traffic accidents from their cars. Like the motorist who can't resist looking at the mangled bodies and twisted metal on the road, even while the sight disgusts him, I, too, can't resist looking at the mangled state of popular culture, and twisted values of modern society.

Popular culture continues to become coarser and uglier with each succeeding generation. Vulgarity, once the province of the socially deviant, is so normal today as to be seen in virtually every mainstream television program and commercial advertisement broadcast into our homes. We encounter it everyday in every store we shop in. Every place we go. Music, television and movies set the tone and soon all of society sounds, looks, and acts like MTV.

The current generation of popular culture shapers are not stumbling and falling into vulgarity as much as they seem to be gleefully rushing into it's arms. You can tell. They WANT to be crude. They WANT to be ugly. They WANT to be repulsive.

Why the last couple of generations aspire to be low when previous generations throughout civilized western society had always striven to be better people (i.e.; better mannered, better dressed, better schooled, better bred, etc.) is a question for social scientists to ponder. I have no idea why middle and upper class kids want to look like impoverished ghetto gangsters and prison convicts. In all other ages the poor aspired to emulate the rich, now it is the opposite.

It is interesting to examine what has become today's accouterments of style in popular dress. The tattooing and piercing of one's body is about as primitive and anti-western civilization as one can get, short of running around in loin cloths and fig leaves and smearing feces on one's face (I hope I'm not giving anyone new ideas here). It is a return to primitive tribal ways. A progressive regression, so to speak. Evolving backwards. We haven't yet seen bones through the nose, but it too shall come.

Now for the good news. I've discovered a way to live in these times without going into deep depression or becoming stark raving mad. My secret? I leave the present behind and take refuge into the past. Ironically, thanks to modern technology, it is a relatively simple thing to do. I have found time machines which take me back to other more refined ages.

I watch old movies on that great cable station, Turner Classic Movies or I'll rent them on video. In no time at all, I am back in 1952 spending an evening with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as "Pat And Mike." Or I'm enjoying May Robson's heartrending performance in Frank Capra's "Lady For A Day" from 1933. Funny how much emotion and feeling can be conveyed without a single swear word or vulgarity.

They're consistently re-releasing old popular music on CDs, so not only can I find my favorite singers and bands from the thirties, forties and fifties, but I'm always discovering new "old" stuff, too. The greatest music of the 20th Century is all there for sale at about $11.99 an album. Benny, Basie, Tommy, Glenn, Frank, Bing, Ella, Nat, Peggy, Mel, you name it. In less than the time it takes to push a button, I can be back at Benny Goodman's live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 or listen to a World War II V-Disc of Frank Sinatra crooning with Tommy Dorsey's band.

Classical music is another way out of the ugliness of today. When was the last time you made yourself a cup of tea and put on Brahms or Vivaldi on a rainy afternoon? There's plenty of old radio shows available, too. Anyone for a little Jack Benny? Or The Whistler? Or how about listening to Charles Laughton and Margaret O'Brien doing "The Canterville Ghost" on a cold winter's evening next to a cozy fire? There are hundreds of great books on tape, both new and classic.

And speaking of good books, the library (remember that place?) is chock full of them. Try rediscovering the gentle art of reading a truly well written novel. Nothing puts you in a whole other world like a good book. My wife and I have been having a party recently discovering old gems that we've never read before. What a treat!

I still go to new movies and live theater, but I pick and choose them carefully. Very carefully. I simply won't waste my time settling for less -- I'd rather spend 2 hours with William Powell and Myrna Loy then with Mike Myers and Jennifer Love Hewitt. The point of it all is, we, none of us, have to settle for less. We don't have to watch those overly graphic commercials of feminine hygiene products and constipation remedies. We don't have to watch sit-coms promoting homosexuality, or dramas that reinforce the idea that most American families are dysfunctional and stupid. Switch to TCM or drop in a tape. Put on some beautiful music. Pick up a book. Come with me and escape the ugliness of our times. It's not hard to do.

Of course, eventually we must leave the sanctuary of our little worlds and venture out to the supermarket or gas station or shopping mall. Every now and then we have to get a haircut or see the dentist or doctor or car mechanic. We are forced to confront popular culture face to face at some point. I haven't figured out a way around this part of it yet .... but give me time. I'm working on it.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby