See that slogan enough times, with throbbing music and video footage of extreme sports, and NO LIMITS! takes on a kind of mantra-like, spiritual quality in your brain. As in, “Gosh-darn the torpedoes! I’m going to start doing whatever I want in my life, and the consequences can (as we used to say in Shanghi, Ala.) kiss my foot!”
But if you whole-heartedly cast aside the limits in, say, airborne athletics, it’s not long until you’re introduced to a very special limit called “gravity,” and you find one or more of your legs inside a plastic cast so rigid that the consequences — or anybody, for that matter — couldn’t kiss your foot even if they wanted to.
This concept isn’t just limited to ski-jumping and skateboarding on steroids. What brought the subject to mind for me was reading an article online this week about an annual event in Missouri for Bluegrass musicians called the National Single Microphone Competition. Such a face-off sets a Bluegrass purist’s heartbeat to racing, because it’s an homage to the golden days of the 1920s and 30s when radio stations and recording studios often had a single big, and costly, microphone. And, if they were very lucky, a tape recorder that could preserve a single-track audio version of a performance.
It would be a little more than 30 years before a California group known as The Beach Boys made history by producing the first-ever 16-track recording on magnetic tape two inches wide, that was originally created for video. (If you know the title of the Beach Boys’ hit single that resulted from this breakthrough, be the first to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll receive a free postpaid copy of my book “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama.”
But, I digress. Watching five vocalists/musicians perform around a single microphone — and in effect mixing their own sound on the fly by controlling their exact distances from the microphone — with a guitar, mandolin and a fiddle or two is a thing of beauty, and lends an unparalleled intensity to the musical portion of the song itself. Any player who can survive such an explosion of sound and motion in a space not much bigger than a phone booth and not get either a skull fracture or an eye poked out is a true master of the one-microphone form. A transcendental pleasure to watch, and all because of ... limits.
From a writer’s point of view, limits are a fact of life. Rarely is a writer assigned an article without being told how many words it should be. As for poetry: a couple of centuries ago, a poem that didn’t rhyme wasn’t considered, technically, a poem. But experimental efforts led to a style known as “free verse,” which was intended to sound more like normal human conversation.
Reviews of this breakthrough were mixed: “Writing free verse,” Robert Frost observed, “is like playing tennis without a net.”
On the other hand, I was in a poetry workshop once where our teacher helped us realize (speaking of limits) just how many different verse forms there actually were, and how weird and exacting were their requirements.
Dylan Thomas’s timeless poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” for instance, is in a format known as the villanelle (which for the life of me, I’ve always translated in my mind as “little villain.”)
The exact rules for writing a villanelle, a poetry dictionary informs me, are these: “The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines.” The teacher challenged (dared, actually) us to write our own villanelles and we did. Miraculously, not only were the results passable, but to my knowledge all of them were published in magazines or anthologies. That’s been decades ago, but I still think mine is some of the best work I’ve ever done. With “No Limits,” I’d have spent those hours eating Cheese Curls and watching “Mystery Science Theater” instead.
When it comes to the “No Limits” philosophy in one’s day-to-day life, the two situations that seem to show the stupidity of that upbeat ad phrase most quickly are (a) getting divorced, or (b) losing your job. Each eventuality says to you, in effect, “Hey, I gotcha ‘No Limits’ right here, Bubba!”
The less said about divorce, the better. But once upon a time, I got fired from my job twice within a year. The first boss told me he was cutting me loose because I was “not a team player.” In my defense, I had no idea that the newspaper was a team, or that I was ‘playing’ anything. I was doggoned serious, trying to write as many decent articles as possible in the woefully short length of time we were allotted. But, that’s water under the dam.
My next workplace fiasco was far worse, especially since I had been trying to be a team player and everybody’s buddy besides. This time my boss called me into his office and said he was letting me go “for my own good” because it was clearer to him each day that I needed to be in another line of work.
“I say this to you like a father and a friend,” he said. “You have no talent whatever for writing, and I’m letting you go while you’re young so you’ll have time to find something you’re good at.”
What this samaritan’s torpedoing of my paycheck actually did was to set a fire under my, ah, aspirations that burns until yet. In the years since, I’ve decided that the people who discourage our dreams can sometimes do us a bigger favor than the ones who encourage. Not many weeks go by now, especially when I finish a piece of work I’m proud of, that I don’t silently thank this gentleman by name. The fact that his name now has an expletive in front of it? Well, you know what they say: “No Limits!”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.