In these troubled times, it feels like fewer things unite all of us. I'm not talking about the big, important issues - like life, liberty or the pursuit of Gaga - but the everyday stuff - specifically, the gossip, low culture and other clutter of our modern world.
Back in the days when 'pop culture' meant a light operetta, water cooler talk was a lot easier. Not because our past forms of escapist entertainment were 'classier,' but because they were universal. As any good history book will tell you, by the year 1870 there were still only two songs in America. One was 'The Entertainer,' and the other was 'The Entertainer (DJ Banjo Remix).' It was a hard time for snarky pop culture critics, but a good time for people trying to use art and culture as a medium to communicate with their fellow man.
Nowadays, the idea of all Americans getting together to boogey down, raise the roof and/or let the 'dawgs' out feels like an impossible fantasy. But it used to happen in a mystical Shangri-La not that distant from today. They called it: The '50s.
Sure, I wasn't technically alive for that particular decade, but hey, it's nice to imagine what a wonderful land it must have been. A place where the entire nation gathered around to watch Edward R. Murrow guest star as a chimney sweep on 'Leave It To Beaver.' Where federal law mandated that the jitterbug be danced at all times and the soda came in only one flavor: Diet American. Today, it's hard to find a song/movie/YouTube video of a kitten on a trampoline that transcends every division of our social order. Our society is too focus-grouped - our niche markets ghettoized into isolated pockets of same-thinking consumers. It's not our age that's dividing us, but our demographics.
As a writer, it becomes a struggle to find ideas (and jokes) that can speak to everyone in my audience, not just the super-cool with-it hep cats. In the search for something universal, something that transcends the bonds of time and marketing, the most noble ideal I can produce is this: We all still get haircuts. Whether it's the $120 dye job at Le Fancyman's Fou Fou, or the mirrorless, bite-on-this-to-ease-the-pain buzzcut, we all get them. Yup.
But here's the rub: What do you say when you notice someone's haircut? In my experience, asking if someone who has obviously just gotten a haircut has, uh, just gotten a haircut is pretty much a social obligation - like giving someone a jump or stealing the yard gnomes of your political enemies. Yet, on the receiving end, it can be annoyingly tiresome to go through this same exchange all day. The question is banal and trite, prompting not so much a response as a pre-recorded message - yet, to not acknowledge the haircut implies an even more cardinal sin: Self-absorption and indifference to others!
(Note: when I say 'haircut' - I don't mean merely getting one's hair trimmed. Haircut is an all-purpose code word for 'you look different somehow.' For instance, seeing that a person has dyed his/her hair pink, grown a beard, is suffering an existential crisis or decided to cut off someone else's face and wear it as his/her own, all fall under the purview of 'haircut.')
We high school students (and recent graduates) deal with these socially-mandated conversations all the time. For instance, well before senior year, you find adults consistently pestering you with one specific, dreaded question: 'So, where are you going to college?'
They mean well, but after the 40th or 50th round of explaining that you're 'still undecided,' it starts to feel like you're wearing a giant mortarboard begging every adult within a half-mile radius to ask you what school you are going to attend. This seemingly perfunctory query is inserted into every possible transaction between you and any other sentient creature, and it becomes more and more frustrating, especially when you have no idea where you want to go, and more to the point, are 13. From personal experience, I can attest that the 'Where are you going' inquiry has haunted me from early junior high, through the acceptance letters and rejection postcards, and well into the dead of summer.
I fully expect the first thing I hear from my college professor to be, 'So, my boy, which university are you off to?'
The funny thing is, at the summer camp where I work, I find it easy to start asking the same grandmotherly inquiries I hated as a kid. 'Excited for sixth grade?' 'My - how you've grown!' 'Is Kidz Bop still a thing, or was that just a crazy hallucination?' To make matters worse, I have absolutely no idea how the developmental schedule of a young child works. Everything after age 16 I'm clear on, but when it comes to the early years, I'd hazard that most children are definitely out of diapers by age 10, upon which they either begin learning to talk or enter the third grade. (Did I know how to speak in kindergarten? I certainly don't remember saying anything important.) So, it's easy to fall back on the old conversational stand-bys.
If you're looking for a 'point' to all this, here is all I can give: Seek more originality in your conversation, yet be charitable of those who stick to clichés. In a world where Celtic punk-pop is a burgeoning sub-class of music (Bogart and the Wailers - in stores now!), people find less common ground in pop culture than they used to. Instead of asking people about the weather, ask them why their father was so cold and emotionally distant. (Happy belated Father's day, Pop!) They'll either break down crying or slap you in the face. On the other hand, if someone does ask you about the weather, feel free to pretend they asked a much more personal question and slap them in the face anyway. Maybe that'll give all of us something to talk about.
Zane Sparling, a recent graduate from Lake Oswego High School, writes a twice-a-month column for the Lake Oswego Review.