Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rather Odd Retro Records and The Elvis Impersonation Kit

You're never really done with a book when you turn it into a publisher. Whenever something comes up related to one of your book's topics you have a desire to somehow go and stick a little extra note in the margin. Blogging is good for that. (Although the pay makes it a dubious choice from a career standpoint.)

Today I came across an unbelieveable curiosity related to another of my books, The Elvis Impersonation Kit, released by Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers. I spoke to dialect coaches and Elvis tribute artists to learn every aspect of Elvis performance, including the between song chatter. Had I only known someone put out a record of just such a thing!

Way Out Junk, a blog that catalogs obscure vinyl oddities-- especially children's music-- came across "Having Fun with Elvis" a record that featured everything you would need for a full Elvis concert experience except for the songs. Yes, a live concert with the pesky musical bits removed. If you want to hear what that sounds like, you can download this bit of recording innovation by clicking the link above.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ironic Accidents

California State Senator Carole Migden, who voted for a state bill that fines people for using their cellphones while driving, rear-ended her state-issued SUV into a Honda sedan on Highway 12 in Solano County yesterday.

You already know the punch line: She was on her cell phone at the time.

Source: Engadget.

Do As I Say - Fabulous Thunderbirds

Monday, May 19, 2008

Why Do You Build Me Up?

If you heard that an acquaintence or a friend's daughter was having problems with drug addiction and mental illness, acting erratically and was in and out of hospitals, you would probably say, "I'm so sorry. That's terrible."

Replace "friend" with "pop star" and all bets are off. When it comes to Schadenfreude-star-power no one outdoes Britney Spears. Whether you were raised on MTV or you don't know the Spice Girls from Hannah Montana; even if you've never heard Britney sing a note, you probably know she had a meltdown and shaved her head; that she is divorced from someone named K-Mart or something, and that she likes to party with Paris Hilton and leave her underwear at home.

That Britney has inspired the do-it-yourself artists over at You Tube to produce hundreds of Schadenfreude-themed opuses is no surprise. That her tragic young life has inspired a ballet is a bit less expected. Meltdown, a 14 minute dance sequence by choreographer Hubert Essakow for the Rambert Dance Company, portrayed Spears’ constant hounding by the paparazzi, including the moment she shaved her head and culminated in Spears’ character being carried off stage on a stretcher. It was performed at the at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The music was composed by Richard Thomas, the man behind "Jerry Springer the Opera."

Essakow must have had his fingers crossed behind his back when he told the BBC that the ballet was not designed to wallow in Schadenfreude but as "an homage" to Spears.

Gemma Nixon, who danced the role of Britney, practiced by watching the pop star's videos. "I was a bit embarrassed," Nixon told the BBC. "It is sort-of grotesque this persona."

NPR did a feature on the production, and from this page you can also access economic reportage on "cashing in on Britney."

So why do we put stars on pedestels just to knock them off? The online publication Global Politican spoke with a Dr. Sam Vaknin, Ph.D on this subject. (Unfortunately the site offers no credentials for the good doctor, so I'm only going on the assumption that his Ph.D was in psychology and not agriculture.)

"The celebrity's inevitable downfall and corruption is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval morality play," said Vaknin. "This trajectory - from rags to riches and fame and back to rags or worse - proves that order and justice do prevail, that hubris invariably gets punished, and that the celebrity is no better, neither is he superior, to his fans."

Being a celebrity is a terrible, unnatural state that leads to madness and unhappiness. Thank goodness I avoided that tragedy by working at the Piggly Wiggly...

Incidentally, word is that Chris Crocker, the "Leave Britney Alone" guy (whose Wikipedia entry is nearly as long as Britney's), is hoping to turn his 15 minutes of You Tube fame into a TV career.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


If you're just discovering the word "Schadenfreude" you're way behind, according to an article in BlackBook Magazine. Not only are more and more people using the word "Schadenfreude" itself, they are increasingly using "-(en)freude” as a suffix.

Examples? "Hillaryfreude may better name your sadistic joy at the death throes of the former First Lady’s campaign—unless your heart is filled with Obamafreude, over the Illinois Senator’s protracted preacher problems. Or maybe you’re bathing in Spitzenfreude, Shaqenfreude, or Spearsenfreude, as you luxuriate in the declining fortunes of Eliot Spitzer, Shaquille O’Neal, or Britney Spears," writes Mark Peters.

As the writer explains, "The success of -(en)freude is an example of what linguists call 'cranberry morphemes'—or cran-morphs for short. There was no cran before cranberry, but that little syllable grew up to become shorthand for cranberry in words like cran-apple and cran-grape."

The article gives many entertaining examples of -(en)freude words, my favorite being an example lifted from someone's personal blog: “Yesterday, it was ‘selfenfreude’ that got me through the day. If you can’t laugh at yourself...”

If "selfenfreude" catches on, I'll have to take joy in my own misery that a book on Schadenfreude is already behind the lexical curve.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Positive Schadenfreude

An early draft of Schadenfreude, Baby! took a mildly inspirational approach to the topic. My thesis was that people take solace in reading about people who have it worse than they have. If you're going through a divorce, for example, it can put your own situation in perspective to read about some of the most rancorous divorces in history.

Sometimes, no matter how much talent, energy and work you put into your dreams, you can’t seem to get beyond running in place. You won’t hear it from motivational speakers or daytime talk show hosts—but here’s the truth—that’s normal. That’s life. So stop beating yourself up with comparisons to the winners. It’s time to compare yourself to the losers for a change. These are the folks who would be singing “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me,” if they could only carry a tune and remember the words.

This aspect of Schadenfreude-- more a relief than a joy at another's bad luck-- is not as often discussed, but it is something we all recognize. Today I came across a story in The Guardian with the modest title: This Column Will Change Your Life.

It's author, Oliver Burkeman, reflects on this positive form of Schadenfreude while discussing how the story of Samuel Johnson's anxiety has been used to help people suffering from "toxic worry" in the modern era.

"Self-help authors love few things more than calling on the wisdom of great historical figures, and happily, great historical figures seem only too keen to oblige," he writes. "Maybe I'm guilty of schadenfreude, but it's far more invigorating to discover that some past icon was as insecure and fretful as the rest of us."

Discoveries in the Blog Logs

After I launched the Schadenfreude sweepstakes (see the left hand frame), I decided to take a look at the site logs to see if it had driven any traffic this way. The site logs tell me what google searches people did to bring them to this site. My favorite discovery was "blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin."

Why someone was searching on that topic is more a mystery to me than why this page came up in the search results.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Schadenfreude Watch: Financial News

In the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of working at a Whimpy fast food chain (named for the hamburger eating Popeye character)in Edinburgh, Scotland. Among the pleasures of this job were bright red overalls that were a cross between a uniform and a clown suit, and dealing with American customers.

Note that I am an American, born and bred in the Detriot area. But let's just say the ex-pat fast food context did not bring out our collective national best side. In my position on the front lines of the hospitality industry, I was tasked with explaining to my fellow Americans that ketchup packets, thrown liberally on McDonald's trays across the purple mountains magesties and frutied plains of the USA, cost 10p each in the UK.

This was invariably taken as a major affront, and elicited outraged shouting.

"What do you MEAN I have to pay for ketchup?? Do you want me to pay for the air too, or does that come free?"

Had I been a bit more confident in those days (the red overalls didn't help in that regard) I might have replied, "Sorry, Toto, you're not in Kansas any more." Presumably they left their native land with the hopes that things would be just a little different than home.

So you can see why some Europeans have come to believe that Americans have high expectations of what they can get with their all mighty dollars, and why seeing the U.S. economy in a recession as the Euro climbs might give them a little chuckle.

This is my long winded introduction to my latest Schadenfreude spotting from the Atlantic Review blog, reporting on a Financial Times article.

German Bundesbankers...are not concerned about any direct fallout from the US mortgage crisis, writes Ralph Atkins in the Financial Times.

The article's headline is "Schadenfreude stirs in resilient Germany," And why not? They invented it. But, the blog notes, Atkins only claims once that "across Germany, a sense of schadenfreude has even started to emerge."

I guess the writer of the headline felt more Schadenfreude than the author of the article itself.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Detroit Redux

And now an update on one of our earlier stories, the text message scandal involving Detriot mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. I already mentioned how Detroiters rose to the occasion producing t-shirts and even cookies to commemorate the mayor's fall from grace. On May 6 the professionals at the Daily Show got into the action.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mortgage Bankers Association Can't Pay Mortgage

Foreclosure filings of all kinds - delinquency notices, auctions sale notices and bank repossessions - were up 112% during the first three months of 2008 compared with the same period a year ago. Community advocates and policy makers are worried that the problem will worsen as the interest rates on as many as 1.8 million mortgages reset this year. (Source: CNN Money) Is there any good news for the family facing foreclosure? Maybe this will help:

The Mortgage Bankers Association-- the folks that came up with the great idea of giving adjustable rate mortgages to people who couldn't afford them-- are having trouble paying their mortgage, The Washington Post Reports.

"A year ago, the Mortgage Bankers Association was thrilled to sign a contract to buy a fancy new headquarters building in downtown Washington. Interest rates were low, the group's revenues were steady and the prospects for quickly renting out part of the structure were strong. But since then, the association has fallen on tough times as many of the subprime mortgages dispensed by some of its members proved dicey. Borrowers discovered the loans were more costly than they had anticipated. Foreclosures soared, and cheap, inexpensive credit dried up, slowing the economy. The result: The trade group is about to find it harder than it imagined to pay its own mortgage."

There don't seem to be many tears shed for the professional organization.

"They are certainly getting what they deserve," Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal research group, was quoted as saying.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Male Lesbians and Your Good Name

It's just part of being human to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about your public image. This concern manifests itself in different ways-- you seek a more prestigous job title, for example, when you might be just as happy in the mail room if it carried more clout. You try to look presentable. You hope to avoid being the topic of nasty gossip. Having your name dragged through the mud is a great misfortune. (Usually compounded by the fact that we overestimate how much attention other people pay to us)

There are people whose names become sullied by their own actions, as when Monica Lewinsky's last name is used synonymously with a certain sexual act. (Or non-sexual act if you subscribe to Bill Clinton's definitions) After George H.W. Bush had an embarassing bout with illness during a 1992 state visit to Japan, the Japanese coined a new term for a humiliating episode of public vomiting, bushusuru, which translates loosely as “pulling a Bush.”

But then there are those people whose names give them grief through no fault of their own. Adolf Hittler, for example, a perfectly nice, non-genocidal, Austrian tour guide who had the misfortune to be named before that other guy- the one with only one "t" in his last name-- became completely infamous.

Recently Dimitris Lambrou, a proud Lesbian, decided to go to court in an attempt to prevent gay women from appropriating the name of his people-- residents of the Island of Lesbos. Lambrou filed suit on April 10 against an orgainzation called the Greek Gay and Lesbian Union.

"It's not an aggressive act against gay women," Lambrou told reporters. "Let them visit Lesbos and get married and whatever they like. We just want them to remove the word lesbian from their title... My sister can't say she's a Lesbian. Our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies who have no connection whatsoever with Lesbos."

Frankly, the ship seems to have pretty much sailed on that one. Language has a life of its own. Once an association is there, it's too late for the lawsuits. Hormel, the makers of Spam (registered trademark) luncheon meat, have had to accept that their product's name is synonymous with unsolicited bulk e-mail.

Less lucky were the descendents of French physician Joseph Guillotin who advocated for more humane capital punishment during the French Revolution. Guillotin didn't invent the instrument of death, but became so closely associated with it that the device came to be known as a guillotin. After Guillotin's death, his children petitioned the French government to change the name of the blade, but it was too late. Their petition was not granted, and they changed their own name instead.

So my message to the proud Lesbian, Mr. Lambrou, is this: They're here, they're queer, they're called lesbians, get used to it. (Those of you who are still smarting by the "loss" of gay meaning happy to the English language-- that goes for you too.)

Post Script: For a vintage recording oddity of the other Lesbian variety, visit WFMU's fabulous Beware of the Blog.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Art Gone Bad

The life of an artist can be tough. You wait for inspiration, work to perfect your craft, and make yourself vulnerable by revealing your creative brain-child to the world in the hopes that you will be showered with love and admiration in return. But what if your attempts at opera are met with snickers instead of sighs? What if your dazzling dance produces only red faced embarassment?

With any luck, your friends will go on with life and be polite enough to never bring up the moronic free verse poem about the guy who dumped you, or your off-key karaoke again. But occasionally someone's level of incompetence in the fine arts rises to a stunning level. While we dither unproductively, achieving only moderate embarrassment, there are the gloriously incompetent performers and artists who elevate a lack of talent to dizzying new heights. They possess the magic qualities that separate a William Hung (the American Idol reject with a record contract) from all the other folks who were axed for singing flat. Their badness makes us cringe so much that it turns into a smile and a kind of stunned admiration that a person who clearly has so little talent could put himself out there with complete abandon.

Schadenfreude, Baby! has an entire section devoted to these heroes of artistic incompetence. Yesterday I learned of another entrant to this unenviable hall of fame. The play was "Moose Murders." Directed by Arthur Bicknell, it opened and closed on the same night and went down in history in the words of the New York Times as "the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway flops are judged."

New York Magazine said it appeared to have been staged by “a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin.”

Its reputation for badness has given it a second life with performances at community theaters, staged readings at bowling alleys, and a "performance art" version at the Contemporary Art Center in Rochester, New York and at the famous restaurant for the New York theater set, Sardi's.

I learned about this achievement in theatrical incompetence when it was used as the subject of one of the quizzes on NPR's game show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me. For a short time, you'll be able to use this link to listen to the panelists observations on this Broadway classic.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Schadenfreude for the Kiddies

Oompa Loompa doom pa dee do, I've got another puzzle for you...

Why has the 1971 kids' film Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory become such a cultural touchstone and cult classic?

Yesterday I was reading Pure Imagination, director Mel Stuart's book on the making of the film. He ponders this very question.

"The key is that it was never made for children—it was made for adults and an adult senseof humor. Deep down I think it caught on because it's cynical and it's not a kiddie film," he wrote. "Almost everybody in the picture—the parents, the kids, everybody except Charlie and Grandpa Joe are rather rotten people. But that's the attraction."

Suddenly it dawned on me. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory is confectionary Schadenfreude for kids. Sure, Entertainment Weekly called the movie the "video equivalent of an overstuffed comforter" in 1995, but they added that the audience could "gloat at the well-deserved punishment of a medley of kids so nasty they make the Menendez brothers look like the Von Trapps."

There is nothing saccharine about this film's candy man. In his care, each child but Charlie comes to an unpleasant fate--turning into a giant blueberry, getting stuck in a tube full of liquid chocolate, or being dropped down a chute with the bad eggs, for example. That is the very draw of the movie.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film by saying, "Kids are not sugar and spice, not very often, and they appreciate the poetic justice when a bad kid gets what's coming to him."

Sure sounds like Schadenfreude to me.