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June 2006

Americans don't know anything about having fun

It occurs to me, as I finish my "working day" from my temporary flat in I reflect upon my last year in Slovakia, my travels in Europe and Mexico, my friendships with wonderful people from countries other than the US...Americans just don't know how to have fun.

The band just got started outside my balcony.  It is the first day of summer, and the French know how to welcome the season in style.  There are concerts all around the Europe, people will stay up all night and dance.  We'll be going out soon.

To prove my point, one needs to look no further than the American wedding.  What better occasion to celebrate life?  But in planning for a wedding, the American mind anticipates fun, talks about it, and ends up with pictures to prove that fun actually did occur.  But the wedding reception usually only lasts a few hours!  The whole event is practically staged for the photos!  If Americans do have fun, it is confined and fleeting at best.

We are too worried, too practical, too guilty, too repressed, too...well...not fun.  We are afraid of losing ourselves in too good of a time!

In Eastern Europe, the wedding lasts at least 24 hours!  Everybody dances like they mean it.  They sing, they talk, they become lost in, and actually transcend, the moment.  The same can be said about 50th birthday parties and many other events throughout the year.  On any summer evening in Kosice, Slovakia, for example, lovers can be seen strolling downtown with ice cream cones...kissing by the fountain...just soaking life in.  Italians take this to an entirely different level.

When Europeans drink, they sing together!  They play instruments!  They dance!  I'm not just talking about young people...typically grandpa is the center of the family's entertainment.  People cook feasts (without too many complaints).  People kiss on the cheek when greeting.  People savor conversation like it is a fine wine.  People sit outside by the fire drinking fine wine.  People go to the spa or the beach.  People take vacation for weeks at a time!

Americans live repressed lives of fear and shame.  Europeans live more full lives of celebration...celebration of culture, of beauty, and of each other.  so I don't really feel like going back.

Unrelated, yet related reading and listening

When I entered grad school, I started to notice the interconnected nature of the subject-matter before me.  True understanding means seeing how things are connected (and, as a side note, also being able to identify the limits / flaws of any theory or model).

My vacation reading has included the audio book version of Erich Fromm's The Art of Being, as well as Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again.  Fromm is a Psychologist and Humanist Philosopher, and his work The Art of Being is a collection of semi-related works from the mid-1970s.  Rip It Up and Start Again is a Non-Fiction work about the era of music known as Post-Punk (1978-1984).  So aside from the vague 1970s references, what commonality do these works share?

Maybe the commonality has do with with certain truths.  Maybe, on the other hand, my analysis is only a shallow reflection of my preconceptions.  But what I see as the overlapping theme threaded throughout is the idea of evolution.  Fromm is a realist who is well-aware that his philosophies are grounded in the laws of evolution.  Reynold's, whether aware of what he is doing or not, dissects the evolution of music through a specific timeframe.  What is most interesting about this era is that it was defined by an attempt to reject the inevitability of evolution itself!  It was an era in which musicians actually tried to shed the influences of everything which came before in an attempt to create something completely new.  They even went to such ridiculous extremes as to legitimize non-musicians as brilliant musicians (the No-Wave trend).  Others espoused a "belief-system" called de-evolution (the band Devo).  But of course it was entirely impossible to eliminate the inevitable force of evolution.  The struggle for survival and thrival amidst a demanding reality of scarcity applied even to No-Wave music, for example.  At the same time, it should be said that such a radical approach to things actually did accelerate the evolution of music and compromised an interesting era of creativity.

Any philosophy not aware of the forces of evolution is a flawed and ineffective one.  An awareness of how evolution affects everything we are and everything we do leads to a very sober, yet correct analysis of things.  Fromm, for example, ponders the "meaning of life question".  His conclusion is that this is a meaningless question.  He says it is more interesting to consider the need humans have to ask this question in the first place.  Whatever answers we come up with are really just personal justifications for the desire nature has implanted within us: the desire to live.

What of "awareness"?  The more successful musician is aware of the fact that her work exists in a "landscape" which brings with it certain conventions.  She is well-educated on her instrument and has listened to a wide variety of music.  She is able to synthesize all of this into a work of art that is  both interesting and accepted by the audience...the life-blood of any artist.  Similarly, the more "correct-living" person is also aware that his life is restricted by the landscape he lives in.  Rather than filling his mind with that which is mystical and made-up, he learns to observe reality as it is.  He is well-educated.  He knows where he fits within the economic landscape that actually exists.  He is aware of the forces at work.

True creativity and success starts with a coming-to-terms with the idea of evolution.  Like a musician has to first learn his instrument before effectively expressing himself creatively, we all need to first learn about the reality we exist within before we can master the art of living...creative, meaningful, successful living.

The protestant work ethic and success

The essence of the American Protestant work ethic is the simple idea that if you work hard, you'll get ahead.  When we aren't working hard, we're thinking about the fact that we should be working hard.  But how true is it that hard work is the primary ingredient to wealth and success?

It is becoming clearer to me that the notions of "hard work" and "success" are actually quite disconnected.  While hard work is oftentimes necessary to achieve a successful outcome, the necessary precursor is solid business decision-making.  Most of us have heard the phrase work smarter, not harder, and it is quite true indeed.  Working hard for the sake of working hard is like driving fast without a map: in some cases you just take yourself off-course more quickly and burn gasoline for no reason! 

I'll even go as far as to say that it is only when we disconnect the notion of success from our socially-imposed feelings of work-ethic-related guilt can we truly achieve success.  Success results from working hard because of a specific, calculated, desirable outcome...and has nothing to do with working hard just because we believe it is right to do so.