The Parable of the Lemonade Stand

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This past summer, as they have many times before, my kids asked if they could hold a lemonade stand. I’ll admit having mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. My less enthusiastic side tends to perseverate on my own lost work time and the endless number of supplies and chores that accompany that task, for no matter how much they insist they can and will do it independently, that never comes to pass.

When I’m at my most enthusiastic, though, I get tickled at their excitement, not to mention how effectively they convince strangers to drink their warm and questionably tasty beverages. After all, it was my children who, several summers ago, informed a customer at their kool-aid stand that the only reason why we had kool-aid in our house was because it was left over from their mom’s yarn-dyeing experiment. Since their mom would never ever let them drink the stuff, they added, they were (naturally) selling it to strangers.

All of that is perfectly true. Continue reading “The Parable of the Lemonade Stand”

Home Is Where We’re Not


One of our department’s former students just published a collection of her poems and, reading it the other night, one in particular caught my attention for the way it so nicely, so succinctly, captured the role alienation and nostalgia play in acts of identification.


I don’t think I need much commentary here, other than to say that distance brings things into a new perspective, helping us to edit, select, focus, and, yes, overlook and even forget…, such that our idea of home is the result of finding ourselves elsewhere and identity is the product of discovering what we’re not.

Dorothy tapping her heels together told us as much.

The Golden Age

As a college professor I often hear faculty lament the students we have “these days”; there’s a nostalgic decline-and-fall narrative we tell, according to which we’re far removed from the golden age when students were prepared for college and could actually read and write upon arrival. If only we could return to the seventeenth century, when students came to college reading Latin and knowing their Seneca and Cicero!

However, when this narrative is shared (and, to be honest, I’ve told the tale myself), what I hear — what that narrative seems to implicitly suggest — is this: things were better back in the old days, before they let a lot of women and blacks and kids from the working class into college. Continue reading “The Golden Age”

Coz these are the good old days

dairyI remember my dad, when I was younger, talking to a customer at the gas station that my parents owned and operated. The man was complaining about the price of gas going up and up and waxing nostalgic for how much it was years ago.

Now, my dad, who was born in 1923, also remembered things about the past but his memories ran counter to his customer’s; so I recall him replying with how much a quart of milk used to cost (yes, my dad once was a milkman, going door-to-door with a horse and wagon), pointing out that no one today seemed to complain about its astronomic rise in price — for if we use the early 1930s as our benchmark, when he was a kid, then the cost of milk has increased somewhere around 800% since then. Continue reading “Coz these are the good old days”

“I Was an Orphan. I Grew Up in Pennsylvania…”

Picture 21Tonight is the series end to Mad Men, the story of the early years of Madison Avenue ad men (and women). When last we saw him, the protagonist, Don, had given away his car to a young scam artist, offering him a new start, and was seated alone at a bus stop, his belongings in a big paper sack. His ex-wife, Betty, had been diagnosed with lung cancer but was going back to school anyway. His onetime boss and then partner, Roger, was playing an electric organ in their freshly vacated offices while Peggy, once a secretary but now an integral part of the creative team, had rollerskated her way into a new found self-confidence and a new office, armed with some erotic Japanese art.

peggy Continue reading ““I Was an Orphan. I Grew Up in Pennsylvania…””

The Memory That Forgets: The Women in Military Service for America Memorial

Women in Military

At the small liberal arts university where I work, we offer a travel course entitled “The Rhetoric of War.” The course examines the way that rhetorics (both verbal and graphic) depict war, patriotism, and the nation-state in the American context. Midway through the semester, the class takes a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. in order to directly engage the ways in which war is memorialized.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Amy Milakovic, is one of the faculty who teaches that course; she has a forthcoming paper about the experience, with particular focus paid to the Women In Military Service For America (WIMSFA) Memorial. As Dr. Milakovic argues, the attempt to honor military women at WIMSFA happens through a narrative that works only to the degree that it actually diminishes women. WIMFSA achieves this by reinforcing traditional gendered stereotypes at the same time that its physical appearance emphasizes invisibility and insignificance, two terrible ironies achieved in a place that claims to highlight and celebrate women in the military. Continue reading “The Memory That Forgets: The Women in Military Service for America Memorial”

“Only Humans Can Really Get Lost…”

Picture 3

On Elvis Costello’s first season of “Spectacle” (2008) there was an interesting moment in his interview with James Taylor, in which the sort of model with which we work here at Culture on the Edge was explored briefly…

Elvis Costello: At times, I know I have a mythic map of my father’s hometown in my head, in which I move characters around in songs. Is it always a real Carolina that you’re speaking of in songs? Or is it sort of a place where longing goes? Is it an imagined place?

James Taylor: I think that that’s a very good way of describing it. It’s the sort of context of my longing, yeah. Continue reading ““Only Humans Can Really Get Lost…””

Business as Usual

memorialdaysaleToday is Memorial Day in the U.S. — a federal holiday marking a time to remember the past sacrifices of members of the armed forces.

In many cases, of course, “sacrifice” is a euphemism for death.

But it’s also a day that marks blockbuster sales — “half-off tops and shorts!” Continue reading “Business as Usual”

The Magic of the Melancholy

Picture 3Jazz fans might know the Canadian singer, Holly Cole, and her (in my opinion, wonderful) 1995 album of (again, for me, the wonderful) Tom Waits songs, “Temptation.” In particular, I have in mind Cole’s version of his 1974 song, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

Give a listen to her version:

I find this song to be a great vehicle to discuss how essentialism (and nostalgia) work, for if you listen to the lyrics you’ll quickly see that Waits has selected a series of isolated, almost distilled moments (akin to what’s happening in this deconstruction of advertizing), none more or less indicative of what any particular Saturday night surely feels like (Question: what does Saturday night feel like?), but, together, they begin to paint a picture and, even if you don’t identify with its specific parts, you might yourself longing for this simpler time.

The song opens:

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
Your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Obviously, this is not the heart of the Saturday night that I grew up with in southern Ontario, when we eagerly waited for the theme from “Hockey Night in Canada” to come on TV at 8, to watch the Leafs play.

But I digress; the song continues:

And you got paid on Friday
Your pockets are jinglin’
And then you see the lights
You get all tinglin’
Cause you’re cruisin’ with a 6
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Cruising with a 6-pack of beer in your Olds — a very particular Saturday night is being created. The song goes on:

Then you comb your hair
Shave your face
Tryin’ to wipe out every trace
Of all the other days
In the week
You know that this’ll be the Saturday
You’re reachin’ your peak

With few words we now know much about the fellow. Then, not long after, the singer asks:

Tell me, is it the crack of the pool balls?
Neon buzzin?
Telephone’s ringin’;
It’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye.

So here we have a song trying to identify something down in the core, the essence, the heart of Saturday night — not the eve of the weekend, for that would be Friday night, and not the very different eve of the work week, for that would be Sunday night. But, instead, the peak of the weekend: Saturday night. It should be clear that the lyric that begins “Tell me, is it the…” could have had innumerable items listed after it, such as “‘Hockey Night in Canada” theme?” or “fact that you have to work the weekend — again,” indicating that there are as many Saturday nights as their are definers of what counts as the definitive Saturday night, which makes a search for its core rather pointless, no? I recall my older sister, a nurse who worked shift-work all her career, and how the holidays — days that just felt like a holiday, right? — for us were never necessarily the holidays for her; hospitals run 7/24/365 and somebody’s always on the job there.

But the trick is in painting a picture just vague enough to allow the listener to connect with it in some unexpected way — such as how this song, for whatever reason, brings back memories for me (there’s the nostalgia…) of young guys cruising their old cars up and down the streets of my small childhood town, hanging out in the parking lot of a grocery store, or maybe the high school, and lifting their cars’ hoods to, well, just stare at the engines for a while. Listening to Rush playing on someone’s car stereo.

Though I never did that, and that’s not exactly what the song is about, that random childhood memory of my own got hooked on something in that lyric years ago, a lyric which was vague enough not to repel what it was that this one listener wanted to do with it.

(Aside: This is also the secret to good campaigning, no? For if you’re trying to build a broad coalition, then your specificity must be moderated by pithy vagueries that listeners can do as they like with — like: Hope, A Stronger America, A Thousand Points of Light, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, or Yes We Can….)

And so — at least for me, with memories of listening to this song having already moved away from Toronto, but with it tethered to yet other memories of discovering Holly Cole while living in Toronto (there’s that nostalgia again…), seeing her preform in a small bar downtown, missing not the song’s home but my home… — this song works. It captures a dream of a forgotten Saturday that, if I’m being truthful, I’ve never had nor ever will. It suggests a simpler time, when pocket change mattered, when second cousins lived around the corner and knew where to find you downtown, when driving up and down the streets was a sufficient pastime.

The trick of being a good essentialist, then, is to select what champions your case and to portray it as universal, yes, but also to keep it vague enough for others to buy in for their own reasons.

And if you don’t know it, here’s the original…