Monday, August 10, 2009

The Dividing Line

As I grow older, I have become fascinated by “pop memory” and the difference between what I deem popular and what younger people see as popular. This has led me to contemplate where the dividing line is between this generational phenomenon.

For example, if I am sitting in a waiting room and pick up a copy of People magazine, devoted to the happenings of today’s popular celebrities, I quickly discover that I have absolutely no knowledge of who they are or why I should be interested. This is true of most items I am confronted with in the popular media. I used to be an avid reader of gossip columnists, a rabid movie fan, and I prided myself of an acute awareness of the popular culture with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names, lifestyles and antics of so-called celebrities.

No more. I am out of the loop.

Indeed, I sometimes enjoy tweaking my many younger friends with a barrage of questions about what I thought were the well-known names of celebrities only to discover a blank stare and a lined forehead in response. Making allowances, I do not really expect my younger friends to remember Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Eddie Cantor would be a stretch.

But I have now discovered that even Frank Sinatra is fast becoming a “never heard of” among the “with it” denizens of the upcoming generation. I dare not even ask about Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Winston Churchill and often wonder what would have happened to the memory of George Washington if he wasn’t prominently displayed on the one-dollar bill. Indeed, I have discovered younger people who think he was a bridge, a state, or a national capital. Worse, I have encountered younger people who believe that Adolph Hitler was an actor who played in some movies about Nazis.

As a kid, in the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I knew every player on the roster and their stats. What would it mean to today’s baseball addict if I mentioned that I had seen Ducky Medwick beaned or thought one of the greatest pitchers on the diamond, although often wild, was Van Lingle Mungo? Think of the giggles I would get from those who worship A-rod or sit in the bleachers of the spanking new Yankee Stadium.

What interests me is not the gap of awareness between the generations, but where one can place the dividing line where memory switches between the now and yesterday. At what age can one expect to be talking in tongues to a younger generation? At what age did my parents begin talking in tongues to me?

My mother once mentioned to me that twenty thousand people showed up at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral. Rudolph who, I wondered then.

In my short story collection New York Echoes, published last year, there was a story called, what else, “The Dividing Line” in which an older man married to a younger woman tries to discover when exactly their memories of the popular culture reach that grey area where neither find common ground. They grapple with this strange gap between them and agree to disagree leaving them to accept the situation as the way of all flesh.

Is it because we are living longer and our memories, if they are still operative, stretch over a larger expanse of time and our natural expectation is that others of whatever age have these same memories? Or is it because the cycle of awareness has accelerated beyond our brain’s vaunted storage ability and we are relying instead on the whirling dervish of technology to keep our memories somewhere in a computer file?

Perhaps this is why I am discovering a dividing line between people in my own age group between those who are reasonably or even marginally computer literate and those who have eschewed the computer as either too complicated or an instrument of the devil. It is often frustrating to discover that a close friend my age does not have e-mail and still relies on the pen and the telephone for their communications. That gap will disappear in time.

I am well aware that these observations are somewhat of a cliché and, I suppose, a normal part of the aging process specific to my generation which got caught in the middle of the computer revolution. I suppose, too, that if one made the effort as a kind of sociological and pedagogical experiment, one could keep up with the emerging pop culture.

On a sentimental note, one might opine that one person’s historical memory is nothing more than normal nostalgia and a yearning for one’s lost youth. This might explain my addiction to the black and white movies cranked out in the golden age of Hollywood. Not only can I name every actor in the flicks and know most of the stories cold, my interest is primarily in the sets, clothes, habits and language of the dialogue.

The atmosphere of those movies was bathed in cigarette smoke, men wore fedoras, and women’s clothes appeared far more elegant than today. People were dressed
up at even the most casual events and the value of money was astonishingly deflated when compared to today’s numbers. Brother can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee would be laughable in today’s Starbucks saturated world. A bad guy was a “mug.” A lady was a “dame” and often called “toots.” People said things like “scram” or “twenty three skidoo” and hundreds of other now dead slang expressions.

Most younger people I know instantly tune out black and white movies. Clark Gable, once known as the king of Hollywood, is identified occasionally by my younger friends as some kind of roofing material and Myrna Loy, at first guess, is usually considered a member of the Chinese Politburo.

Whoever is considered more ignorant or out of touch in the great lottery of life, there is one sure thing. Those who are completely in sync with the comings and goings of the contemporary celebrity culture will one day be completely out of touch with it in a few short years. Indeed, the Beatles will one day go back to being insects, Elvis will be the name of some hip surgery prosthetic, and Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson will one day be confused with American Presidents.

Andy Warhol was wrong when he said that everyone will enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame.

The time frame he referred to might one day be measured in seconds.


andrew said...

Interesting perspective, Warren. And it is your unique perspective.

If we're the sum of our parts I feel sorry for Frankenstein as his parts tended to smell. Poor joke, I know.

My mother grew up in the fifties but doesn't remember Elvis. Said she was too busy in school. Go figure.

Each of holds a prism to what we see, what we've seen. Binoculars, one end your closer to the encroaching man-of-war. The other -- you've made your escape.

Wulf said...

Though it's before my time, as a youngster I was introduced to My Fair Lady and Seven Samurai, which remain two of my favorite movies to date.

It seems to me those experiences we have while our minds are still developing and mapping the world are the ones that we hold most dear.

There have been many great movies and great teachers in my life since I've grown, but none I remember so fondly as those that influenced my malleable and youthful mind.

Perhaps the old saying, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, has more subtle applications than we know :)

Lauren said...

I had a good chuckle while reading your comments about People magazine. I used to subscribe to and eagerly devour my weekly issue. Until about 2 years ago, that is, when my then 12 year old started recognizing more of the celebrities than I did! Now she has the subscription and explains who the celebrities are and what they are famous for, rather than the opposite.

Interestingly, though my children may be in the minority, they are still being taught about famous and influential figures throughout history. When my daughter was in the 3rd grade, she researched, wrote, dressed as, and presented a paper about Eleanor Roosevelt. My 2nd grade son came home from school one afternoon eager to discuss Rosa Parks, segregation, and the Jim Crow laws. And I just recently learned that my high school freshman is going to read the book "To Kill a Mockingbird", watch the black and white film in class, and study the story as a time of conflict in our society/history.

Whenever my children have expressed curiosity about people or events, current or historic, I've always taken the opportunity to teach them and share what I know (much to their chagrin, sometimes). But my children also inform me about the people and events which are significant to their generation.

Consequently, they are aware of and enjoy some of my favorite books, music, actors and films, and I enjoy some of theirs!