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Flashbulb anticipation

The Jonestown massacre was responsible for my growing up bereft of popular culture. Not because I was orphaned by Kool Aid--drinking parents or because I belonged to a cult, but because my mother was so appalled by the media representations of the event that she got rid of our television, cancelled the newspapers, and turned off the radio. Receiving the New York Times once a week to do the Sunday puzzle in pen, she raised me in blissful ignorance of anything that was going on outside of our immediate environment, a tiny, secluded island on the East Coast of Canada. "No, really," said a friend of mine recently, when I said that my only memories of the first Gulf War were of my fifth-grade classmates calling Saddam Hussein "So Damn Insane." "Were you raised in a closet?"

I remember things happening, of course. I wasn't completely impervious to the demands of society; after hearing everyone talk about The X-Files for a while, I got a friend of mine to tape them for me. It was pretty good. No staying power, though. And the O.J. Simpson trial swept my high school into an uproar, allowing me to feel morally superior about not having seen the infamous White Bronco tooling along a California highway. The day of the verdict, my French teacher allowed me to bring my handheld Walkman radio to class and remain plugged in while she distractedly taught the future imperfect to my equally distracted classmates.

I faithfully listened to every minute of the banal reportage, until the verdict came through. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, the school secretary stole my thunder. She reported over the P.A. system, "Due to popular demand, we've been asked to announce that the Simpson trial verdict is 'not guilty.'" Instantly negated, I watched as the class devolved into frantic conjecture, and one extremely nerdy, soft-faced boy proclaimed over and over again that he believed O.J. was guilty because "he had shifty eyes."

My husband, born in 1967, remembers the moonwalk. It's sad that so many major world events passed in my lifetime without my having any monumental exposure to them at the time. Scientists call our memories of those moments "flashbulb memories." There's usually at least one eponymous generation-defining flashbulb memory, that "Where were you when...?" For the Boomers, it was when Kennedy was shot. For us, it'll be September 11.

It's funny to me that events can be so easily supplanted. I mean, when the Challenger exploded, we thought it was the worst thing we could imagine. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, the years of fear and anguish and the Cold War came to an end, and we thought our national consciousness had been raised. Then came the World Trade towers and a barren New York landscape, and now I'm just waiting in horrible anticipation of what the next flashbulb memory might be. Because we don't seem to "flashbulb" happy memories as often as we flashbulb horrible ones. Our group memory prefers terror and sadness, tragedy and death. In writing this, I've been trying to come up with a happy event in America's history of the past 20 years, something that we might all turn to each other and say, "Where were you when...?" about, but I can't think of anything -- which proves my point more aptly than anything else.

I'm not saying that nothing good ever happens; I'm sure people have positive flashbulbs galore -- the day you married your high school sweetheart or the moment your baby was put into your arms. But as a nation and as a culture, we have no group memories that are positive. We have nothing to share that makes us smile, that we actively want to remember.

If this is what I had to look forward to as an unsheltered child, why should I have bothered reaching for the TV remote or for the front-page news? I may have been raised in a closet, but I was happy. When the best our popular culture can bring us is a way to bond over natural disaster, you have to wonder why we have it at all. Now that I'm an adult, the Internet means I never have to be more than a finger-touch away from news, announcements of celebrity weddings, and ads for cheap prescription drugs from Canada. Any reasonable need for pop culture I might have is satisfied ten times over, but I still find myself skipping over the news shows in favor of America's Next Top Model . Perhaps my mother was right: it's safer to revel in banality.


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