Cultural Touchstones

29 Jan




I went to see the film “Joy” the other night with my mother and niece, Meghan. As we left the theater we remarked on how much we liked the movie and how wrong the critics had been.

Meghan exclaimed, “I loved Jennifer Lawrence.”

I replied, “She was good, but so were the other actors. I liked Isabella Rossellini.”

“Who is she?”

“She played Robert de Niro’s girlfriend.”

“Oh, Trudy.”

“Yes, she’s one of Ingrid Bergman’s twins.”

I start to see a glaze cross Meghan’s face. In my mind, I see the beautiful Ingrid in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious adorned in a long, sweeping black dress with a key behind her back.

“Ingrid Bergman was a big star who became pregnant with girl twins by the director, Roberto Rossellini. She was married to someone else. It was a big scandal.”

I realize I’m having this conversation with myself.

For a long time I have been seeing signs that my cultural touchstones are quite different from those of the younger set. It doesn’t stop me from communicating with my niece, but in conversation with younger people I often find myself adrift. I think of myself as quite young, but more and more I am having these “senior moments,” when the content of my conversation doesn’t always match up with those younger than me

In the obits there are more and more people dying who are my age. Each time someone passes, there are fewer people alive who knew of Ingrid Bergman, wore pedal pushers, or watched all of the Watergate hearings.

When I started teaching English full-time at a Wisconsin school in 2000, I was suddenly struck that I was teaching a different generation than I had expected to. I had taught students at the University of Minnesota who were younger, but they were mixed in with older students. Now I was teaching four courses and found myself immersed in Generation X. When I dressed in my jeans, I probably looked fairly contemporary, but I often wore the dressed-up outfit of my growing-up years–a peasant style shirt and long cotton or nylon skirt–I found out later on evaluations that I’d immediately marked myself as older. I also found out that students are more critical of women’s clothes than men’s and that younger women often receive better evaluations than older ones. Two of the older teachers told me that they had received better evaluations when they were younger.  The choice of clothes is in itself a language, but I have mixed feelings as to whether or not one should try to change clothes just to suit an audience.  Coupled with these problems was the fact that when I opened my mouth I instantly pegged myself as someone-not-of-their-generation. Part of it involved those cultural references that I used naturally without thinking too much about it.

However, some of these cultural touchstones are symbols that I have used on purpose with the younger generation, not necessarily successfully. When I was working as an adjunct in Wisconsin, I often taught an essay called “Drugs” by Gore Vidal. I had started using it the University of Minnesota where I taught as a graduate student. One of the reasons I thought it worked well was because it contained all the rhetorical aspects that one uses when teaching argument–all this in a page and a half. However, I also knew that students would probably respond well to an essay that argued on behalf of the legalization of drugs. I knew that they would have a lot to say about the topic. What I didn’t realize was that it would look like an attempt on my part to get down to their level by trading in on a cultural symbol of my generation that was most often referred to in music–”White Rabbit,” by Jefferson Airplane, “Cocaine,” by Eric Clapton, or references to getting high by the Beatles. It was clear to me that my students were still using drugs like my generation had, especially pot, and talking about it, so in an attempt to be “cool,” the use of which already indicates that I come from somewhere back in a distant time, I had included references to the use of drugs in my generation and that part of my teaching had backfired on me.  I was actually someone who stayed away from most drugs, except for alcohol.  If I were still teaching, I would continue to use the essay, but I might not talk about myself so much.

Still, maybe the shifting of cultural touchstones is something that  cannot be resolved.  Certain things become part of how ones sees oneself in relationship to one’s generation and there will always be a difficulty between generations in terms of changes in colloquial speech. Furthermore, when I was writing this essay, someone reminded me that the movies I often reference aren’t necessarily something I share with everyone my age, so even within a generation there are gaps in conversation.


2 Responses to “Cultural Touchstones”

  1. dh January 30, 2016 at 12:32 am #

    You could write some sonnets about the passage of time a la Shakespeare. I think this is a great topic to explore in a poem.

  2. I could try that. Good idea! I’m so excited about your new granddaughter. You should send me some pictures.

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