It’s third and final episode in a series of three episodes about America: its history, its people, and its culture. This time around, I am looking at walking across America through the lens of the seminal travel memoirs A Walk Across America and The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2 by Peter Jenkins and Barbara Jenkins. In addition, I take a look at the book their son, Jedediah Jenkins, wrote, To Shake the Sleeping Self. It’s the portrait of a journey, a country, and a family.
Content Warning: This episode includes me sharing my political views. Listener discretion is advised.
While I am in no way an anthropologist nor an anthropology student (even if I did take a couple of intro classes in grad school), I am fascinated by the concept of culture. I don’t know where it comes from and this is not the moment I am going to explore it, but I enjoy looking through the windows of others’ societies to see how they live their lives in ways that are both unique to them and common to so many of us. As I have been reading about America and exploring our history and culture on my podcast, I have come to appreciate our differences and similarities even more. Due to to our vastness, the nuance that you can find in our people is amazing.
Why, then, I often wonder, do we assign a monoculture to a group that’s not like us?
I know the answers to this question involve one’s ignorance, prejudices, or hate. It’s even to think of, say, Black Americans as acting or living a certain way when you’re a racist; it’s simple to assign characteristics or behaviors to Latinx people when you’re xenophobic; and when you don’t know much about another country, it’s easy to make assumptions based on what you see in the media. Thankfully, there is travel as a way to erase that ignorance, and if you don’t have the privilege or luxury to travel to France or Morocco or India or Japan or anywhere else, there are plenty of travelogues to read or shows to watch.
Sometimes, though, the monoculture is the result of politics, a way of seeing a supposed “enemy” in only one way so the government or a particular political party can gain or maintain power. That can be easily wrapped together with racism and xenophobia, as we have seen throughout our history when it comes to countries with predominantly non-white populations. In fact, we wrap entire continents into said views–I have lost count of the number people who act like Africa is a country or anyone who comes from a country south of the United States is a “Mexican.” But then there’s the Soviet Union.
I spent the better part of two years taking a look at how Americans viewed the Soviet Union during my Fallen Walls Open Curtains miniseries, and came across so much media that basically described the average Soviet citizen as a bloodthirsty commie zombie ready to destroy America on command. At least, that is, until Rocky Balboa defeated Ivan Drago … I mean, until the mid-1980s when Gorbachev came to power and enacted Perestroika and Glasnost. Then, the media turned toward building a bridge with the USSR. The Russians (never mind that there were multiple Soviet republics, they were all Russians) liked blue jeans and Coca-Cola and rock and roll just like us!
Of course, looking at the people of the Soviet Union through that lens is just as ignorant because you’re grafting your own cultural identity onto them and therefore dressing them up in your own monoculture. To truly remedy the ignorance we all had about the people of the Soviet Union, we would have had to actually go there and meet people from all over the place. But that wasn’t possible for the average American in the 1980s (and is still well out of reach these days). Thankfully, we got A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, a project conducted by 100 photojournalists on May 15, 1987.
It’s the third episode of a six-part miniseries that examines the books, movies, music, comics, and other popular culture that directly addresses or is about the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this episode, I look at literature. Selections include poems by Toni Morrison, Abigail Deutsch, Deborah Garrison, and others; short stories by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates; andGae Polisner’s novel The Memory of Things.
A quick content warning: Though these events are now 20 years in the past, they are still traumatizing to many, and I also discuss some of my personal feelings and views, so listener discretion is advised.
The back cover says it’s “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s” and offers up a sample of how it can improve word skills through the way it illustrates its entries as well as employs phrases and sentences to demonstrate proper usage. The front is a mish-mash of different images from inside, complete with the bubbly sans serif font that was considered modern for the day, as textbooks and reference materials were trying to show that they were not the stodgy, inaccessible tomes that lined the bookshelves and walls of classrooms and libraries. No, The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary was something else.
That’s a lot to lay on a dictionary, which is quite possibly the most utilitarian reference source you can own. But sometime around the second or third grade, I received my copy. I can’t remember who gave it to me–maybe my parents, maybe an aunt or uncle–I just know that it became a permanent fixture on the bookshelves and for a while, it was one of the coolest books I own. Granted, I have always been a dork when it comes to any textbook or reference book, especially those published from my childhood. I realize that it’s total nostalgia, but seeing one of my old reading books or the social studies textbook from second grade brings back memories of making book covers from a Waldbaum’s shopping bag and flipping ahead to units I hoped we would get to at some point in the year.*
With the dictionary, though, I didn’t have to wait for a teacher to cover anything, and during the next few years, if I wasn’t using the dictionary for actual schoolwork, you could find me flipping through it for fun**. Yes, I realize how that sounds. Like, who flips through the dictionary for fun? Furthermore, how the hell does someone flip through the dictionary for fun and not have that be the moment in the first act of the movie when his parents “knew” that he would grow up to be the inspirational genius that moviegoers have been suckered into watching in the dead of winter because there’s nothing else in the theater?
Come on, people, we’re talking about “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s!”
So what’s so special about this? Why am I giving this so much attention even though it’s just a dictionary? Well, let’s take a tour.
The Illustrations. Upon first glance, you can tell this is going to be a different dictionary than, say, your average Webster’s edition. The cover is bright with illustrations, which are also featured throughout the book. The illustrations were by George Ulrich, who has had a career as an illustrator for children’s books for more than thirty years. It’s a cartoony style of drawing that is also grounded in realism, a calmer, toned-down School House Rock! that accurately represents whatever needs to be shown but doesn’t shy away from being fun on occasion.
The Fonts. As fun as this book is in its illustration, the font choice takes its job seriously. We have a serif font (such as TNR) in place for most of the body text, but Helvetica is in play quite a bit. You might not really notice it, but I freakin’ love the font and I’m pretty sure that this is where my love for Helvetica began. Yes, it’s the very definition of generic, but the cleanness of that sans serif font made everything in the 1980s look and feel newer and slicker. Even today, Helvetica is comfort food to me***.
The History of the English Language. Before you even get to the words and their definitions, there is a section of the dictionary that is the story of English as a language, written and illustrated in that calmer School House Rock! manner. I’d read this section all the way through at one point, although the pictures stuck with me more than any of the text. And the picture that stayed with me the most was probably the most random one of all of them, which is the one of a person in the present reading a book. Like Helvetica, this was comfort food to me, the suburban kid, back in the early 1980s. The casualness of the pose and the common nature of the picture made me feel like that could be me in the picture but also a bit aspirational, like that’s what “ordinary” life should look like. It’s the same feeling I would get (and still do to a certain extent) watching an old episode of Family Ties.
Letter History. Whereas the pictures in the “History of the English Language” section were something I focused on more than the words, this part of the dictionary was something I obsessed over. Leading off each letter section of the dictionary, it’s a rainbow-striped guide to the evolution of the modern-day letter. We start with ancient Phoenician writing moving through Ancient Greek letters, Ancient Roman lettering, Medieval script, and finally showing the contemporary lettering via our friend Helvetica. Years later, I would take an introduction to Linguistics course in graduate school and I credit my love of these letter histories for my love of that particular course. The way that our language evolves (along with other aspects of culture) is fascinating, and if I have any academic regrets in life, it’s that I didn’t take more courses in topics like linguistics, anthropology, or sociology****.
The Definitions of “Run.” Okay, so now we’re actually into the definitions, and the one word that I would look up in this dictionary and then any other dictionary that I came across (even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in the reference section of my public library*****). I was amazed that this word could have 21 definitions (and even more listed in those other dictionaries). English, as a language, is complex to an almost horrifying degree, and I remember that when I see any of my students–especially English language learners–struggle with comprehending the rules of usage. The myriad definitions of “run” is a great snapshot of that.
X has one page. I guess this is more of a fault than a feature? Anyway, I always found it funny that the publishers decided to look at “X” and say, “Ah, screw it” leaving us with five definitions: X (the letter), Xerox, Xmas, X-Ray, and Xylophone. I mean, even “Q” has four pages (although all the words are “q-u” words) and they give “Z” a page and a half.
Zucchini. Speaking of Z, this is the last word in the dictionary. It also has a rather … phallic illustration to accompany it.
I touched upon how the book was important for fostering my curiosity as well as building a foundation for learning. What’s also important is that this book was mine. Not that I was ever discouraged from being curious about the world or writing, but I loved being able to do that on my own. Yes, it’s kind of like giving yourself homework, and it probably contributed to my being such a teacher’s pet for so many years, but I can’t help but feel grateful because of how I’ve never stopped being curious or interested.
* Yes, I was that nerd. Even in graduate school, I found myself skimming chapters that hadn’t been assigned just because I was interested.
** My parents had a dictionary on the shelves that was more “adult” and had an awesome reference section in the back. That and their copy of The People’s Almanac from 1974 probably deserve their own entries.
*** Not surprisingly, I was a high school yearbook adviser for 10 years.
**** There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have gone into sociology and/or media studies instead of toiling in marketing and then becoming a high school English teacher.
***** Holy shit, was I a nerd for that reference section. Books that were so special you could only use them in the library and not check them out? Oh hell yes. And THEN, I could look at the New York Times on microfilm.
Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?
In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.
It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once. I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s. First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time. Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Plus: listener feedback!
Space. The final frontier. This episode is a conversation between me and special guest star Gene Hendricks. Our mission? To talk about the original crew Star Trek films and explore our own origins as fans of the classic science fiction franchise. But it’s not just movie talk. We have also read all six of the film novelizations and discuss how much they add to the experience. It’s a classic fan conversation with two guys who are boldly going where many have gone before!
And a quick note on the audio quality of the episode. At one point, early on in recording, my USB microphone died and I had to switch to my in-computer mic. I have done my best to remedy the poor quality through rerecording a few pieces of what I had, and using various noise cancellation and volume balancing tricks. So my apologies for the bad quality of sound on my end. I just didn’t want to let such a great conversation go unheard.
In celebration of the 80th anniversary of Batman and the 30th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman film, I am taking a look at my own Bat-fandom, focusing specifically on Mark Cotta Vaz’s 1989 book Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman’s First Fifty Years, 1939-1989. I cover what’s in the book as well as talk about my Batman origin story and why this book was so important to my fandom.
“Operation Chicken Lips” continues in issue #71 of The ‘Nam as journalist Ed Marks tries to help out the firebase he escaped in the previous issue. It’s “Return to Brass Hat” by Don Lomax and Wayne Vansant. Plus, I take a look at April 1972 and also review Lynda Van Devanter’s memoir Home Before Morning.
It’s an all-star “live” episode as I get the chance to sit down with Professor Alan and Stella and then Stella herself and talk about topics random and geeky! Enjoy such conversations as the novels of Thomas Hardy, DC Rebirth, the Human League, Bat-splaining, and Mad Men. Plus, LISTENER FEEDBACK!!!
Show notes and pictures are available at Pop Culture Affidavit, which is also where you can see regular weekly blog entries about the randomness that is pop culture.