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Fast Forward in the Slow Lane : Driving Aids: On audiocassettes these days, you can learn to speak a language, understand the meaning of life or tune out to Cape Cod surf, loon calls or a seduction scene.

November 23, 1989|RICH TOSCHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura Freeway has come to a standstill for 40 miles in both directions as 18,000 drivers stop to gawk at something unbelievable, such as a broken Styrofoam cooler in the breakdown lane or six men in orange vests trimming a shrub.

You are mired in what will be a two-hour commute and have punched the buttons on your $1,200 AM-FM stereo cassette player--the one with Dolby sound, graphic equalizers and a set of twin woofers the size of the Three Mile Island reactors--so many times that your right index finger has cramped up.

You have listened to an endless torrent of "radio personalities"--wacky disc jockeys who mumble really obscene words over the air and then giggle at each other for 20 minutes.

You have listened to a country music station, whose play list seems to consist of endless ballads by Boxcar Willie about his lyin', cheatin', whiskey-drinkin' dog, or Loretta Lynn moaning about what a lousy, mangy life she has had--if you overlook that $30 million she has tucked away someplace.

You've tuned in to a punk radio station and after 10 minutes still aren't sure whether what you just heard was a song or the pistons snapping out of your engine block and pounding against the hood of the car.

What's a person to do to pass the time until the radiator sends out geysers of steam?

Perhaps it's time to break out the cassettes. No, not the same mindless music available on the radio. Educational cassettes. Language cassettes. Relaxation cassettes. Mood cassettes.

There are scores of such tapes available. They are designed to ease the tension and stress of freeway driving.

The promotional material that accompanies language tapes vows that if you drive from Woodland Hills to your job in Anaheim, you will be fluent in several languages upon arrival. In addition to the common foreign languages, one company produces a tape designed to teach you to speak Swahili. Good to know if you ever get lost in the Little Zanzibar part of the San Fernando Valley.

But language tapes are tame, compared to some of the more bizarre cassettes sold in local record and tape stores. Consider:

* Caribbean Island Surf. "Close your eyes and create your own island paradise to the sound of the sea," we are told on the jacket. We are not told that if we close our eyes on the San Diego Freeway we are much more likely to create a SigAlert than an island paradise.

* Cape Cod Ocean Surf . "The ocean's endless roar creates a background for the breaking surf," the packaging material claims, "first tearing apart and then caressing the sands of time. The stress of modern living dissolves with the sound of Cape Cod's shores." Right. Who wouldn't be calmed by the 250-decibel thud of 12 tons of water slamming down onto a beach?

* Solitudes: An Environmental Sound Experience--Storm on a Wilderness Lake. How precious. How could we help but relax with the sounds of a dock being broken into toothpicks by a gale or a raccoon being killed by a falling tree?

* Solitudes II: Under Sail With Dangerous Cargo. Honest. That is what it said. No comment needed here, except to point out that this one is likely a big seller among Exxon officials with insomnia.

* Fireplace. "Imagine staring into the blue-tipped bright orange flame of a fire. Listen to the crackling and popping of the hot embers and slowly lose yourself," the cassette jacket tells us. Oh, could we, please? What would be nicer on a 112-degree August day in Encino on an overloaded freeway when the arrow on your car's temperature gauge is pointing to Hell than to hear the sound of a fire emanating from under your dashboard? How thoughtful.

* Seduction . This tape features a picture of a woman in a nightgown tugging at the arm of a man in a tuxedo, a man, by the way, who is without a head in the photograph. We can only imagine what this is all about--you imagine a couple of people breathing like St. Bernards into a microphone. This is going to help you drive?

Some tapes are, well, just plain hard to believe.

* Solitudes, Volume 7: Night in a Southern Swamp-- Oh, doesn't the imagination just sprint away on this one? What sounds could be on this beauty? Two brothers, both named Elford, dismantling a still? Twenty minutes of a dimwitted fellow named Gomer slapping a mosquito off his neck?

* Listen to the Loons-- "Listen to the passionate cry of the loon on a Northern lake as he dives into the water and emerges with a herring trapped in his beak," the tape jacket gurgles. Whoa. Got a problem here. Herring are saltwater fish. They don't live in Northern lakes. This tape must be a phony. Probably not even loons. Maybe they substituted pigeons with respiratory ailments.

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