I’m first to admit that I’m “culturally shell-shocked.” At times, I’m thankful for that; like when they release an “Expendables” movie and I’m able to enjoy it much as a bewildered bystander enjoys marveling at a kangaroo at the zoo, instead of feeling some artificial sense of patriotic unity or attachment to the horror before me. Other times, it alienates me from my would-be peers, and in those times there is little I can do but strive to understand those around me and try to help them understand me.
But then there are times–especially in the last year or so–where I find myself unnaturally at odds with a roomful of people. I have one view, everybody else has the opposite view, and I find myself having to stand up for a totally conventional belief.
The other day I went out to lunch with two coworkers. I was driving, and happened to have Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy on the CD player. I will grant that it’s not the most timely album in my rotation, but in a way, it’s kind of timeless. Widely respected as one of the best records released by one of the most influential bands of our time, it went platinum five times, remains on Rolling Stone’s 500 Albums of All Time list (updated this year, no less), spawned some of the band’s most experimental moments as well as some of their greatest hits, including Grammy-winning “Spin the Black Circle,” and “Better Man,” which spent eight straight weeks in the number one spot on the Billboard Top 100. Heh, I did a little research.
↑ It also spawned this classic rock ‘n roll moment. Why do they call bands “factions”?
“What is this crap?” the guy next to and less than a year younger than me snarked.
I shot a glance at him, taking my eyes off the road for just a millisecond. I had to check his facial expression for some sign of facetiousness. None. What.
“Are you. . . actually asking me that?”
“. . . Why? What is this?”
“You don’t know Pearl Jam? Come on, man, this is pretty textbook American culture. You can’t alienate me over this one.”
“Whaaaat?! Come on, seriously?! You never listened to these guys?”
“Yeah, I also used to listen to Candlebox,” he said, thereby equating the significance of Pearl Jam to one-hit also-rans Candlebox. Don’t get me wrong, they were talented young men in their own right. But dude.
The guy in the backseat chimed in. “Sorry Greg, nope. Never got into these guys.”
“But but but. . . surely you at least know some of these songs. They’re still played on the radio constantly. ‘Better Man’? ‘Corduroy’?”
“Pffft, what the hell are those?” Backseat said.
“Oh, COME ON! You’re from the bumfuckiest town in the entire Midwest. There was literally nothing to do in your hometown in 1995 but listen to Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. I can’t believe I’m having to defend this. ‘Spin the Black Circle’ won Best Hard Rock Performance on the Grammies. . . .”
“Ooh, that’s a big deal,” Backseat snarked. Passenger Seat sneered in solidarity.
“Everybody out of this car.”
To the bitter end, I couldn’t get them to react reasonably. Was this the Twlight Zone?
If they’d only seen what else was inside my armrest-slash-CD-compartment:
A veritable fricassee of weirdness and obscurity. Pearl Jam was probably the least likely thing in my entire rotation to receive such a reaction. It just didn’t seem fair.
The following evening, I was enjoying some free time and drinks with friends in my living room. At one point I said something to the effect of, “He never told Mike and I–Sorry, I mean Mike and me.”
“Actually it is ‘Mike and I,’ Greg,” a friend corrected.
“Nah, my mistake. It’s the object so it should be ‘me.'”
Another friend chimed in. “Pretty sure it’s always ‘I.'”
“Wh. . . what? Are you being serious?”
The friend, and indeed, the entire roomful of friends, blinked at me in unison.
“It’s supposed to make sense grammatically even if you remove the other party. You wouldn’t say ‘He never told I.’ If you’re the subject, you use ‘I.’ If you’re the object, it’s ‘me,’ as usual.”
My audience was bewildered. I couldn’t believe it. I know this wasn’t culture shock. We moved on and I went back to drinking, this time with newfound purpose.
The third such incident occurred when I was at work. Many of us bond at the workplace by quoting The Simpsons, since the show has miraculously burrowed several seasons of itself into the collective psyche of an entire generation of Americans.
“Supposed to be going out for drinks tonight,” a coworker said.
“Drinks, eh?” I said. “That’s where I’m a viking!”
I was referring to this scene:
“Um. . . what?” another coworker said. It was Passenger Seat from the first anecdote. He’s a known Simpsons quoter, so I was taken aback.
“He’s using that expression wrong,” the first coworker said.
“I’m. . . what?”
“That’s not what that quote means.”
“It. . . what? Then what’s it mean?”
“It means you’re literally a viking.”
“I. . . WHAT?!”
You see, in Season 7, which aired when I was in the sixth grade, resident dullard Ralph Wiggum proclaimed the above line and I interpreted it to mean that he excelled at sleep. To me, the joke was in the notion that Ralph, a dullard, somehow had banked this woefully obscure–even poetic–expression for “to excel at” in his memory. It was the dichotomy of what I thought to be a very esoteric expression and a dimwitted child.
“But. . . that’s not clever! It’s just more random nonsense!” I bellowed.
Perhaps needless to say, my coworker’s suggestion that Ralph simply meant that he was literally a viking in his dreams was deeply troubling to me.It was like at the end of Sixth Sense where all of Bruce Willis’s memories instantly metamorph as he realizes he was (spoiler) dead the entire time. Had I had it wrong for the last sixteen years?
Everybody in the vicinity chimed in to assure me that I was wrong and that everything I’d known or believed for the bulk of my life was a bitter lie. I lost some two weeks of sleep trying to figure out why I would assume “I’m a viking” was an expression meaning “I excel at.”
After the first two incidents given in this blog and a handful of other ones in which I found myself inexplicably at odds with everyone around me, the viking thing started bothering me all over again and I looked it up. Turns out there’s a whole ongoing debate about it on the internet. That is to say, many people had the same interpretation as me. There have even been online polls, which all seem to lean heavily toward the literal interpretation that Ralph is in fact a viking, but at least I know I’m not totally alone.
My perplexity, however, remains. Why is everyone so synchronized around here except me? Where are the Vitalogy listeners, the people who remember fourth grade grammar, and those who think the best Ralph Wiggum jokes are the ones where he isn’t just a random word generator?
I ask you, greater blogging community – Where?