Shaka, when the walls fell
There’s a captivating episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in which Captain Picard attempts to establish relations with a race that communicates entirely in metaphors.
As the Federation representatives pose clear, direct questions to the Tamarians, they respond with phrases that puzzle and frustrate the enterprise crew, such as “Rai and Jiri, at Lungha.” Or, “Shaka, when the walls fell.”
It is only after Picard and the Tamarian commander are forced into a life-or-death predicament do they, out of mortal necessity, work through their misunderstandings.
Lately, I’ve felt a bit like the Tamarian, as more often cultural references I toss out are met with a “Huh?” or just a look of befuddlement.
For instance, I lately referred to Aristotle Onassis in the presence of two young medical students, both of who asked, “Who’s that?” They were in their twenties.
Another time, remarking on a side effect of a medication I’m taking, I complained, “This stuff has swollen my feet and ankles so much my legs look like they belong on Cabbage Patch Kids.”
Again, I was met with a stare and “cabbage?”
A couple of summers ago I was vacationing in a lovely Hudson Valley town and had worked up a thirst for a nice summertime cocktail. I ordered a Tom Collins. The bartender, a young woman, asked “What’s that?”
Had the drinks of my youth fallen out of currency? Had I outlived them?
We all make cultural references. They are the metaphors with which we communicate. And when they falter or fail, it is disquieting in a profound way, not unlike being rendered mute.
Young people of every generation have had their own cultural references and their own slang, but it seems to me as communication technology has progressed faster than our ability to keep up with it, language has become more compact, less layered, shallow and banal.
I was born after the golden age of radio, but I knew about radio shows, such as “The Shadow” and “The Inner Sanctum.” How? My parents used to talk about them.
If I were to mention Paladin or “Have Gun, Will Travel” to anyone younger than sixty, I expect I’d draw a blank stare. Are parents not passing the knowledge down to their children?
Cultural knowledge, which includes such trivia as the names of old television shows, and dead personalities, is part of the collective consciousness of our civilization. I think we all lose something if it decays and evaporates.
And it can leave an old codger like me feeling, well, rather isolated. There’s a proverb that says you only truly die after the last person who has any memory of you dies. I’d add to that, when your cultural memories are no longer shared.