Recently, I assigned an essay to my students that required them to define a problem in their community. A discussion of possible topics inevitably turned to the lament that there is nothing to do in this town, a complaint repeated throughout the world millions of times every day.
Eighteen-year-olds in Rio de Janeiro, London, Sydney, Cairo and Bangkok are lying about right now in various poses of ennui, bemoaning the injustice of a world not designed expressly for their entertainment.
Our conversation about Merced's limited distractions prompted a student to mention the upcoming hookah lounge.
"The what?" I asked. An image flashed through my mind: Heavily mascaraed women wearing teddies and high heels, sitting on tattered sofas and perusing copies of People Magazine, a time clock ticking away on the wall behind them.
"The hookah lounge," my student replied.
"Oh. Like the pipe?"
The student nodded.
I was greatly relieved, especially since the assignment would require students to engage in field research.
The evidence is indisputable. I am beginning to hear like an old person. This doesn't mean that my aural acuity is in decline. The problem is that I hear things filtered through experiences not attuned to today's popular culture.
Though I have never ventured into a hooker lounge, I have not been in a hookah one either, and of the two the first is more recognizable to me than the second. My mind simply isn't conditioned to interpret hookah as a pipe, but instead to understand it as dialogue from an old Jimmy Cagney movie, one I've never seen but which theoretically could exist.
I first noticed this when someone mentioned Cee Lo Green on a television talk show. Since I had never seen his name in print, I was confused. Was it Sea Low, some kind of obscure comment on climate change? Or was the name See Low, indicating a very short person?
A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my son, listening to his iPod. (Or is it iPad? And when did we all agree that proper nouns needn't begin with capital letters?)
"I like these guys," I said, proud of my ability to appreciate a band whose members were born decades after I purchased my first Walkman. "What's their name?"
"The Black Keys," my son responded.
"You mean The Black Eyed Keys?"
"No, The Black Keys."
"Oh. Isn't there a band called The Black Eyed Keys or something?" I asked.
"No," he answered.
But I knew there was a band called something like that, somewhere. "Yeah there is. Their lead singer is Fergie. Like the Duchess of York."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, his patience clearly exhausted.
So I just listened and made a mental note to google Fergie, singer-British royalty.
One problem is that young people talk so fast, as though there is no need whatsoever to slow down for names like Weezer, Blind Melon, or Noah and the Whale.
"Isn't it Jonah?" I asked my son one day. "I think you must have the name wrong."
He sighed and sank down further in his seat.
I remember the days when I was on the other side of the gaping aisle that divides the young from the middle-aged.
"No, no, no," I'd inform my parents in that long-ago time. "Not Leopard Skinner. Lynyrd Skynyrd." And then I'd roll my eyes, aghast at their ignorance.
Though I am now the older generation, I am at least still one step ahead of my mother.
"They're opening a hookah lounge over there," I said to her during our last drive through town. I pointed to the future
home of what will almost certainly be a short-lived fad.
She stared at the building.
"Isn't that illegal?" she asked.
One day I will melt down completely. I will confuse The White Stripes with the Black Eyed Keys-Peas. "Oh yes," I will say, rocking to and fro in my antique chair. "I like the Black-Eyed Stripes and their lead singer Fergie. She was married to a prince, you know."
My son will shake his head and stare sadly into the distance, mentally tallying up the cost of putting me in a home.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.