My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
Temporary escapism: NYC teens are discovering “Friends”
New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante reports that New York City teens have discovered the popular 1990s sitcom “Friends.” A big reason for its draw is its portrayal of the relatively carefree lives of its main characters, young Manhattanites Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey. Bellafante writes:
What’s novel about “Friends,” or what must seem so to a certain subset of New York teenagers of whom so much is expected, is the absence among the six central characters of any quality of corrosive ambition. The show refuses to take professional life or creative aspirations too seriously.
. . . The dreamscape dimension of “Friends” lies in the way schedules are freed up for fun and shenanigans and talking and rehashing, always.
Among Bellafante’s interviewees was a 17-year-old high school girl in Brooklyn who sees “Friends” as a welcomed break from the stressors of school and prepping college applications:
It did not escape her attention that the characters are almost never stressed out about their jobs. “All they do is hang out in a coffee shop or a really nice apartment,” she said. “It’s the ideal situation.”
However, the young woman asked that her name not be used, lest she appear to be frivolous in the eyes of college admissions officers!
It’s wholly understandable why these young strivers might welcome “Friends” as a break from the pressure cooker of jockeying for grades and acceptances from top colleges. But it’s sadly telling that they’re seeking such escapism in a sitcom. One senses the anticipation of an early midlife crisis, grounded in the revelation that the game of obsessive hoop jumping often leads to more of the same, while already yearning for some healthy downtime.
Why there will never be another Great Pumpkin
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is one of the most popular television specials ever made, premiering in 1966 and shown every year around Halloween time. Featuring the beloved “Peanuts” characters of Charles Schultz, it centers around young Linus’s yearly obsession with the Great Pumpkin, who supposedly promises to deliver bags of goodies to kids who wait for him in pumpkin patches. Here in the U.S., the program will be broadcast on ABC this Tuesday!
Something tells me that Charles Schultz was not crazy about dealing with legal matters. I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” just the other day (yeah, I bought the DVD a few years ago…), and I noticed how it is sprinkled with references to lawsuits, notarized documents, and other legalities, and not in a happy light!
Of course, it took a law professor’s scrutiny to pick out the legalisms, because the program is simply a lot of fun. For many of us who first watched it as kids, it brings back great memories of trick-or-treating, school Halloween parties, and scary stories of ghosts and goblins.
In any event, we won’t see anything like the Great Pumpkin anytime soon. Why? Take a look at the photo above, showing the ratings pulled in by the premiere broadcast of the program. The “share” means it attracted 49 percent — roughly half of the viewers — of the U.S. television audience during that time slot!
Such a market share would be unheard of with today’s multiplicity of cable stations, streaming services, and DVD rental/purchase options. Back in the day, we had the three networks and a handful of local stations to watch, and that was it! Less choice meant more of a shared experience. We’d watch highly anticipated kids’ specials on TV, and then go to school the next day to talk about them animatedly with our friends.
It’s obviously different nowadays. While I wouldn’t trade in the bounty of viewing choices we have today for a handful of channels and no way to record anything, we have lost a bit of the “popular” in the term “popular culture” as a result. We also have lost the seasonal anticipation of waiting for that once-a-year broadcast of favorite specials and movies. Instant gratification can be, well, instantly gratifying, but it’s not the same as watching the leaves turn and looking forward to the fall presence of the Peanuts gang.
A random observation on Snoopy, perhaps the most iconic Peanut’s character: He really should’ve been a cat! Think about it: He may be everyone’s favorite animated beagle (including mine), but he acts like a cat! He’s cheap with his affections, utterly self-absorbed, will dish out retribution on anyone who crosses him, and yet we love the little fellow.
Photos are screenshots from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and an accompanying DVD feature on the making of the television special.
“The Wire” and today’s Baltimore
Baltimore has been reeling in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died from a severed spinal cord sometime during his apprehension and custody by the city’s police department. Gray’s death follows other well publicized, suspicious fatalities of black men involving police in other parts of America. In Baltimore, protests, unrest, and rioting have ensued.
This is a fast developing story, but as reported today by the Baltimore Sun, the State’s Attorney’s Office, citing evidence including the medical examiner’s report, has called Gray’s death a homicide and stated that the police acted illegally by arresting him in the first place. The State’s Attorney’s Office has warrants to arrest the six allegedly responsible police officers.
The Wire and Baltimore
How many of us, while watching this terrible situation unfold in Baltimore, have thought about David Simon’s classic HBO series The Wire (2002-2008)? Especially for those unfamiliar with the city, The Wire became our lens on its gritty underside, featuring gripping stories about Baltimore police, drug kingpins, politicians, newspaper reporters, teachers and school kids, and waterfront stevedores.
The Wire has been justly hailed as one of the best television dramas ever, so layered and authentic that many consider it an iconic depiction of the harsh realities of modern urban America, and a testament to the futility of well-intentioned efforts to reduce crime, improve schools, and clean up government.
When life meets art so tragically
Amidst the avalanche of news coverage about the situation in Baltimore, the Sun has observed how frequently references to The Wire are appearing in social media. Actor Wendell Pierce, who played Baltimore detective “Bunk” Moreland in the series, accused CNN of stirring up violence to fuel ratings. Actor Andre Royo, who played addict and informant “Bubbles” Cousins, took to Twitter to urge peace and calm. David Simon penned brief statement urging the same. (It prompted over 900 comments posted to his webpage alone.)
Sometimes life meets art in the worst of ways. It is heartbreaking that Baltimore has erupted like this, and that some of its poorest neighborhoods will be paying the price for many years. It is a 21st century phenomenon that our impressions of these events have been shaped by a cable television show lauded for its authenticity.
“Airplane!” is 35 years old
Airplane!, the gut busting, hilarious send-up of airplane disaster movies, turns 35 this year. For a long list of reasons, I’m not sure that a similar kind of movie could be made now, but especially for Gen Jonesers who grew up with the movies and television shows poked at and parodied in the film, it doesn’t get any funnier.
The IMDb.com profile gives you a list of the awesome cast, reader reviews, a list of classic quotes from the movie, and more.
In a great interview with co-producer David Zucker conducted by Yahoo’s Jordan Zakarin, we learn some of the backstories that led to the casting of the movie, including that of Peter Graves as Captain Oveur :
Peter Graves famously didn’t want to play the aspiring-pedophile pilot at first. Was he reluctant to deliver lines like “Have you ever seen a grown man naked”?
Peter Graves’s reaction [to the script] was, “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever read.” His wife and his daughter read it and they laughed all the way through and they said, “Dad, you have to do it.” So he was ready to do it when we shot.
Across the pond
My first experience of watching Airplane! was odd and memorable. It was the spring of 1981, and I was spending my final undergraduate semester at Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England, study abroad center. I went with a group of fellow VU students to a local movie theatre. Amidst a somewhat sparsely attended screening, we were the only ones laughing uncontrollably throughout, while the rest of the (presumably British) audience chuckled politely on occasion.
How could our British moviegoers have understood how LOL funny this was! If you’re not familiar with Barbara Billingsley’s role as suburban housewife June Cleaver in the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver, then you have no idea how hilarious it is to listen to her speaking jive to a couple of black passengers.
Of course, perhaps the Brits that night didn’t fully appreciate Airplane!‘s over-the-top, un-PC American-style humor, done in such rapid-fire, equal-opportunity target style that you don’t have time to become mortally offended.
I only know that my stomach was sore from laughing so hard.
I’m just a 20th century kinda guy
When I think about the cultural and historical markers in my life, I quickly reach the conclusion that I’m a 20th century kinda guy. Born in 1959, and given my appreciation for history, the last century is my default lens on the world.
My personal culture
My pop culture worldview is still partying like it’s 1999.
If not earlier! For example, when it comes to popular music, my tastes stop somewhere in the mid-80s, and I’m more drawn to composers and performers of the early and middle 20th century — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, the Big Bands, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — than any other era.
And while current television dramas are generally superior to most of their predecessors, I’ll take yesterday’s classic sitcoms — “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “MASH,” and yes, even “Hogan’s Heroes” — over “Two and Half Men” and other popular shows today. As for the big screen, I’ll gladly opt for a rich array of oldies, while passing on the dreck coming out of Hollywood now.
As far as my Chicago sports fandom goes, give me the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1990s Chicago Bulls, the
1969 Cubs, the 1984 Cubs, the 1983 White Sox…okay, it’s a mixed bag.
In terms of technology, I’ll take DVDs over streaming, CDs over MP3 (closer call), real books over e-books (though I get the convenience & cost factor), and Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS over anything to do with Microsoft Word. I’m not that crazy about cellphones, and I don’t permit my students to use laptops in my classes. (In a big bow to the 21st century, I believe the iPad is one of the most brilliant devices ever made.)
And what of the bigger picture?
Centuries are marked by the turn of a calendar, but their essence is defined by core events. For me, the 20th century era — at least from an admittedly American perspective — began in 1903, when the Wright Brothers successfully flew their primitive airplane in the dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It ended with the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Hmm, both events centered on the use of airplanes…)
When it comes to grasping history and current events, I see how we’re still strongly influenced by decisions and events of the last century. World diplomacy in 2014 has the scary look & feel of Europe in 1914, and the two world wars continue to shape international relations. And if you want a milestone year for understanding the path toward America’s present domestic and international political status, then take a close look at 1980: The election of Ronald Reagan and the Iranian hostage crisis captured the nation’s conservative turn and anticipated its post-Cold War preoccupation with the Middle East.
Somewhere a place for us
I happen to believe there’s still a place in this world for those of us whose outlook on things reaches back into the last century. If not, whatever. I’ll just pop that best-of-the-80s cassette back into my Walkman and try to get over it.
I subscribe to a lot of magazines, but if there are three that exemplify where my everyday, pop culture base of gravity sets, The Week, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly fit the bill.
The Week offers a handy roundup of national and international news, short reviews of movies, TV shows, and books, financial advice, and the like — a little bit of everything, drawn from a wide variety of news sources. On matters of political, public policy, and social significance, it attempts to present a span of viewpoints and perspectives.
Sports Illustrated is exactly that, a weekly combination of sports features and photography. Even with the deluge of online sports fan sites, SI — one of the pioneers in sports journalism — still informs and entertains.
Entertainment Weekly also holds its own against competing online coverage of movies, television, books, and music. More than any other source, it tips me off on the best stuff to watch on the small screen.
I could list all of my subscriptions in an attempt to sound more intellectual, politically engaged, and worldly, but if I’m being honest with myself, I must acknowledge that I am very much a middlebrow kinda guy. Maybe high middlebrow or low middlebrow at times, but definitely hovering around the center.
What is middlebrow? Freedictionary.com calls it “(o)ne who is somewhat cultured, with conventional tastes and interests; one who is neither highbrow nor lowbrow.”
By and large, that’s me.
Perhaps I’m simply a product of my times and upbringing. I grew up with the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Columbia Record and Tape Club. The emerging geek side of me read the World Book Encyclopedia. I listened to AM pop music stations before going over to the exotic world of FM. As a kid, going out for dinner usually meant pizza or a burger. Ordering in meant carryout from the local Chinese place. A birthday might mean a trip to the amusement park.
Moving to New York for law school and living there for 12 years definitely lifted my cultural horizons. Broadway shows, the music of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Sinatra, that kind of thing. My appetite became more eclectic, especially with different Asian cuisines. But even these explorations, now very much a part of my personal culture, were more of a Manhattan brand of middlebrow than a jump into high society.
As for today, I’ll opt for a good PBS mystery series, reruns of the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” or a good World War II movie over the latest hot foreign film. For leisure reading, I’ll usually choose a good suspense novel or history book over classic literature. And during recent years, many of my summer vacations have been spent going on storm chase tours in search of bad weather.
Good with it
I’m not averse to trying new things and expanding my worldview. But when it comes to my personal culture — the stuff that brings me enjoyment and entertainment — my default point lands near the middle.
That said, don’t let my culture define yours. The process of sorting out and embracing that personal culture is, I believe, a key to living a satisfying life. On this point, to each your own. Whether it’s watching World Wide Wrestling or going to an art gallery opening, enjoy.