I’ve been experimenting with vintage tube radios, trying to learn enough so that I can soon design and build my own prototype. When I tell people this, they ask, “Where did you learn how to work on radios?” I usually say something like, “I just Google stuff, and I’m handy in general.” Which is true. But the real truth is I know very little about radios. I know you turn them on, they make sounds, but I have truly absorbed only a handful of the technical basics. To understand sound, and how it works, is to understand physics. Reading about physics makes my brain hurt, like suffering from an ice-cream headache of information.
So, why would I want to work on radios?
Well, because old tube radios are cool and aesthetically inspiring to me. As a kid, I found solace in fixing all kinds of things. I came from a broken place, and maybe the comfort I found came not from any meditative qualities of fixing, say, a lawn mower, but from the very act itself — to simply fix something, anything, because I couldn’t fix my mother, or our life together. I’m speculating. I don’t ruminate on my childhood, but this ability, born from the need to make things work, is a very large part of my identity, though I’ve never considered any of this in these specific terms until now; yet it’s more true than I’d care to admit. I try not to think about it because I’m not particularly good at fixing things, a reality that frustrates me greatly. Though, to be clear, I am more capable than the average person. But I am not a detail person, and never was or will be. This is a trait inherited from my father, and — to tell the whole truth — I am mediocre at most things. I’ve always been a “jack of all trades, master of none.” When I tell this to people, they disagree, insisting that it simply isn’t true, often following up with embarrassing compliments, niceties such as, “Your designs are so good,” or, “You’re a great writer.” So, while I don’t agree with such high compliments, I do believe my work is at the very least good, and I’ll tell you why.
My medium as an artist has always been shaped by my mediocrity. This sounds pretentious, and I hate saying it, but I’ve forced myself to say these words only because of how true they are. I create good art because I am aware of my limitations.
Like a young man named J. Mascis, who in 1984 could have easily tried and failed to sing like Phil Collins, but instead simply sang like J. Mascis, which is why today you can hear young men trying and failing to sing like J. Mascis. He created music that organically fit the natural key of his voice. If you don’t know who Dinosaur Jr. is, listen here.
Take J. Mascis out of Dinosaur Jr. and place him as the frontman in Coldplay. You suddenly have a very bad band because Mascis is Dinosaur Jr. And if you in turn replace J. Mascis with Chris Martin of Coldplay, again you suddenly have a terrible band. So, while you can be a great singer, no one will ever know this if you keep singing the wrong songs. The same is true for writers.
I don’t mean to imply that I’m somehow great in the same way Mascis is, or that he’s a bad singer masking a lack of talent in esoteric stylings, and I’m especially not trying imply that as a writer you don’t have to put the work in to be great. However, I believe Mascis and I are similar types of artists.
I’ll explain by talking more about radios. At The Angry Computer booth at Hippocamp16, I had on display a tube radio that I re-designed from this old Zenith:
I started with the idea of just restoring a neat old radio to demonstrate an “attention to detail” that I don’t actually have.
I replaced the front grille cloth with this material from a vintage suit jacket I had on hand, as seen here:
I didn’t hate the material’s pattern — I actually liked it a lot, which is why I had it around, but the aesthetic just wasn’t working.
That’s when this happened:
And finally I arrived at this:
I decided I would build an “Atomic Radio.” Do I possess the knowledge and skill necessary to have restored this according to my original plan, to look like it would have in 1947? Sure, but I found no connection to that aesthetic, and more importantly — I’m not the type of person who wants to pay attention to the sort of detail necessary to complete an original restoration. It might not have looked so terrible if I’d continued on my original path, but there would have been nothing interesting about the radio other than that it was an old radio. My mediocre knowledge of radios led to something not in the least mediocre – I created an object packed with meaning.
This radio was built two years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an event that has never again been matched in the sheer magnitude of its impact on the world of design, the effect of which is still being seen in today’s designs, 70 years later. My radio reflects this impact, in the front mid-century style “atomic-burst” design, in the feel of the radio when contrasted with the red, and especially when combined with the aesthetic of the original shape, dial plate, and knobs. I wasn’t conscious of this in the moment. This entire project was born, and adjusted, as I tried to work within the confines of my limitations, and yet I still managed to push myself creatively, and learn new things.
So, what I’m trying to say is that if you are a boxer and can’t kick, you wouldn’t want to try to become Jean-Claude Van Damme, you might instead take up mixed martial arts, in which your boxing talents would be a big advantage, and your kicks don’t need to be tornado kicks.
Whether it’s writing, radio building, or re-upholstery— this is my philosophy. I’ve never approached a new project in which I didn’t ask myself, “Now, how am I going to do this better than I did it the last time?” I’m always pushing myself, always growing, all while working within the limitations of my own mediocrity. All of my work, especially my projects and enterprises, my writing, reflect the greater artists who came before me, but I no longer imitate my heroes. I try my hardest to do the work necessary by staying within the confines of my creative space, never climbing over the fence, but scaling high enough to see new ideas on the horizon.
As a result, this radio project has led to several other projects involving radios, and other past technologies, one of which is a writing project about the history of the radio and an interesting discovery I made about its connection to the atomic bomb, an event that led to the technology necessary for the production of the transistor radio. The transistor—which made radios small enough to fit in your pocket during the late 1950’s—is the same technology that allows for today’s cellphones.
One idea can be a million ideas, because everything is connected in one way or another, only you must first learn how exactly to see the forest through the trees. I believe that one way of doing this is to ground your artistic endeavors within your passions as a human being, to find ways to accomplish what you can’t, or that you simply don’t know about, in your own, different, and creative, way. Don’t ignore what you don’t know or try to do it poorly. Utilize what you don’t know to create something even better than your original idea. Begin to learn who you are as an artist, then plant yourself like a tree, and grow within that space. Or don’t.
P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.