Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Finding Your Different Drummer

June 5, 2013, 2:15 p.m.

An Alternative to the Corporate, Televised Test Pattern

Test Pattern for Living is back.

Originally published as an original Bantam paperback in 1972, the book was reissued in a Lulu paperback edition last week. It should be available through Amazon sometime in mid- to late July. Meanwhile, the publisher is the only source. (There may be a book signing in a couple weeks at Uptown Bill's, at which 20% of the heavily discounted price will be a contribution to Uptown Bill's.)

Meanwhile, the book celebrated its Iowa City debut last evening at "Slices: Performance and Pie" (an event presented the first Tuesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. at Uptown Bill's in Iowa City, Iowa, in cooperation with Combined Efforts Theatre).

"Slices" offers participants an opportunity to present brief (10-minute maximum) readings from favorite or original literature. One of Slices' unique features is that participants must use a total of no less than two persons for the presentation.

I was fortunate enough to have the assistance of two professional actors for this event -- Rachael Lindhart and Jason Grubbe (both Actors Equity members) -- and my son, Gregory Johnson. Any additional background on what we did and why is contained in the script used on that occasion.

An Excerpt from Nicholas Johnson’s Test Pattern for Living
Uptown Bill’s
Iowa City, Iowa, June 4, 2013

Nicholas Johnson (NJ): Test Pattern for Living. 1972.

The women’s movement was just getting started. Women as well as men were still referred to as “he.” But it was also a time of great creativity in everything from politics to the arts. So the Foreword to Test Pattern for Living was sheet music by Mason Williams, the composer of “Classical Gas” and the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” head writer. And instead of text throughout, the text I wrote was on the right hand pages, and the left hand pages had quotes from others that were supportive of that text.

I was still an FCC commissioner, and was trying to bring attention to the impact of television, and its corporate sponsors, on Americans’ lives. The phrase “test pattern” was a reference to the test patterns on the television screens at that time. The book was designed to offer readers a path to thinking through their own individual standards, a way to break out of the corporate interlock.

The pressures on individuals today are similar to those 40 years ago. America is again at war. A collapsing economy is now the reason individuals are rethinking their own set of values. That’s why the book was reissued just last week.

For our excerpt at this evening's "Slices," I’ll be reading my text from the right-hand pages of Test Pattern for Living. My "Greek chorus," Rachael Lindhart and Jason Grubbe,will speak the quotes from others from the left-hand pages. The book also reproduces the text of actual TV commercials. One of them, plus Mason Williams' all-purpose commercial, will be read by my son, Gregory Johnson, who starts us off.

# # #

Gregory Johnson (GJ):

Mason Williams.
At last
New from us
This amazing dramatic proof
You can.
It's easy!
You mean America's favorite modern families?
Yes! . . .
Because they used that other stuff in tests
But without the special ingredient of a magic formula
Now available in two sizes
Fresh and moist
And especially made so effectively light and lovely
That the leading new word for all you ladies
Combined with their report
Is a timely message of less than a minute
And quick to fix from now on . . . .
So why not try big, tough, super
Flakes of special interest for all you guys
With twice the power and vitamins necessary
For a high rate of saturated “duh”
That is free for an unlimited time only
with every Hey!

NJ: The difficulty in America today is that we have turned it all over to the big corporations. Time owns Life. Our colleges, churches, foundations, and public broadcasting stations tend to be presided over by the same guys who decide what automobiles we'll buy and breakfast cereals we'll eat. They publish our children's school books; they own most of the nation's artistic talent—and they have little hesitation in censoring the copy of both.

Jason Grubbe (JG): Mason Williams.
The censor sits
Somewhere between
The scenes to be seen
And the television sets
With his scissor purpose poised
Watching the human stuff
That will sizzle through
The magic wires
And light up
Like welding shops
The ho—hum rooms of America
And with a kindergarten
Arts and crafts concept
Of moral responsibility
Snips out
The rough talk
The unpopular opinion
Or anything with teeth
And renders
A pattern of ideas
Full of holes
A doily
For your mind

NJ: Understanding this concept of "corporate interlock" is really essential to an understanding of this book. In general, people either understand the concept right away or not at all—in which case spelling it out is a waste of time. But I'm going to try.

Rachael Lindhart (RL): Philip Slater. “One cannot successfully alter one facet of a social system if everything else is left the same, for the patterns are interdependent and reinforce one another.”

NJ: Let me begin with an anecdote. One evening Mason Williams and I were debating whether to go out for dinner or cook something at his house. We finally decided we'd stay home—principally because we didn't want to bother to change clothes. This prompted Mason to start speculating—as do a great many of life's quirks. "Nick, I've finally figured out why you have to dress up to go out to dinner."

"Why's that, Mason?" I asked.

"Because the same people who own the restaurants own the clothing stores."

His years of working for television have forced Mason to think in one-liners. (That's all you ever have time for.) And, like many of his one-liners, this one is both inaccurate in its particulars (so far as I know clothing stores are not owned by restaurateurs) and profound in its more general wisdom. "Living" ought to be individual, spontaneous, extemporaneous; a personal quest, evolution, and growth; an experience in uniqueness. But living your life according to the corporate plan involves no more of a creative "centering," or flowering soul, than painting in numbered spaces with the indicated colors is "art." It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You are living out somebody's else's plan—not yours—paying them handsomely for the privilege of doing their work for them.

JG: Timothy J. Cooney and James Haughton write, “In America one of the basic rules many people live by is that one must keep up with the Joneses. By your own example you must turn this rule upside down. If you absolutely need a car, let it be the oldest on the block. . . .

At first, such "odd ball" behavior will cause some embarrassment and you will hardly be popular with your neighbors. . . .

Half the worry of . . . people in this country is how to pay for all the brand-new and superfluous junk they have signed up for, at just "pennies a day." By your example you will be offering an escape from this endless worry . . ..”

NJ: The psychology of acquisitiveness is to know, at every stage, what pieces you must next acquire, and in what order—house, car, sailboat.

GJ: Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of a doll that had everything. And then came Dawn, the doll that comes with these beautiful things. Like a car with Dawn actually at the wheel! Just look at Dawn go! There's a Music Box with Dawn on top, and the fabulous Dawn Fashion Show—the only one in the world with a revolving stage like this. Dawn comes with it—watch her walk and model, all by herself. And start collecting all these accessories: a handbag, elegant furniture with a phone that really works, a beauty parlor set. You can display Dawn, her friends, her fabulous clothes, right in your own home. Make your dream come true with Dawn, the doll that has so many beautiful things. Dawn's clothes are so beautiful, so stunning, so elegant, you'll want to collect more than one doll just to show them off! And it's so much fun to put two Dawns here, three Dawns there, call it "Midnight Magic." Then change their clothes, set them up, and call it "Sweet Dreams." Use your imagination! Dawn. Fun to play with, fun to collect.

NJ: "House" takes on an externally imposed meaning: suburbs, air conditioning, grass, wall-to-wall carpeting—just as surely as "Dawn" would be incomplete without her "car," "fabulous clothes," "elegant furniture,” and "beauty parlor." Sound familiar? Could it be you are now living in the doll house you used to play in? Is that an accident? Is it really what you want?

The corporate interlock of jobs, products, and life style means that once you come into the circle at any point you find yourself surrounded by all of it. And once you're in it's very difficult to get a little bit out.

The choices remaining to you are relatively meaningless—such as which color and extras you want with your Chevrolet, whether you'll drink scotch or bourbon, how "mod" your ties will be, and which toothpaste you'll use.

JG: William F. Fore. “Free selection of a wide range of goods and services does not signify genuine freedom, particularly if the desire for these goods and services tends merely to foster more frantic work, more compulsive buying, more fear and self-doubt. In this context, free selection tends to create and sustain alienation.”

NJ: It all fits: corporate white-collar job, suburban home, commuting by automobile, eating in restaurants, and the clothes. There is the canned entertainment of radio and television for the boredom, the bottled alcohol and aspirin for the pain, and the aerosol cans of deodorant and room freshener to maintain the antiseptic cleanliness of it all.

JG: Mason Williams. “We're like a race horse shot full of speed to make us run harder than is good for us, to win for the owners and lose for ourselves, to win the race for only the price of the chance to run.”

NJ: You wear your office, your home, and your car as much as your clothes and deodorant. And from the corporate layers of externals comes your very identity—and the smothering of your soul.

RL: Suzannah Lessard. “A young person gets a big bang out of taking a well-paying white-collar job with a large and important company, thinks to himself "I'm making it," and sees . . . himself in the saddle. It's only later, much later, when the exits have all been quietly sealed off, that it becomes apparent that the saddle is really a harness . . ..”

NJ: Let me try another example. Once you have accepted a job in a professional or managerial capacity with one of the nation's top two hundred corporations, you will be led inevitably to the purchase of a special automatic dish-washing detergent. Here's how it happens:

You are probably working in a large, fairly new office building in a major city, and living in the suburbs. You not only feel under pressure to get a house about the same size and cost as your neighbors, but such a house is, in fact, the only kind available.

JG: Paul Swatek. “Social custom teaches us to strive for a privately owned, single-family home in the suburbs, possessing a garage of at least two-car capacity, and filled with "conveniences" that assure us of more "leisure" time. Advertising urges us to consume and dispose. Is this really what you want? The decision is yours and you are free to say no.”

NJ: The kitchen is really quite large. It has lots of cupboard space. You may have moved a lot of kitchen stuff with you; or maybe you bought it because you never envisioned any other way to live, or because you're expected to entertain in a particular style.

In any event, even though you find a camp cook set more than enough in the way of kitchenware when you're camping, you don't want all those empty kitchen cupboard shelves.

Once they are filled, you feel a compulsion to use the stuff. Instead of washing a pot after it has been used, you put it aside and dirty another one. Silverware, glasses and cups, bowls and plates are likewise dirtied in great number, even during the course of a family meal, let alone when you are entertaining.

Having dirtied so many pots and dishes, it really is a drag to have to wash them all by hand. So you get an automatic dishwasher. Maybe it was already in the house. Maybe you were partly influenced to buy it because the neighbors have dishwashers. But mostly you get it because you have all those dirty dishes.

And once you get it, you find it's designed so that you have to use the special dishwasher detergent or the soap will suds out all over the floor.

And that's why, once you accept the job, you have to buy the special dish washing detergent.

# # #

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