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“Agamemnon, aggression, Agnew (Spiro), agnosticism, agreement (grammar), agribusiness, air pollution, air quality index, Akron, Ohio.”

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, c. 1987

This is a sample from a book-length list some guy put together to help culturally illiterate people catch up with their more educated fellows. Of course, cultural ignorance is hard to define, and snobby to even contemplate. And it’s not something we’re likely to measure in ourselves, or bother to improve. Better strategy: hang out with people who like the same shit.

Isn’t it our prerogative, anyway, to curate our cultural influences? Walt likes Game of Thrones. Angie likes Desperate Housewives. Brianne likes Jim Lehrer. Agree to disagree and keep the ad money coming in for the networks.

But we’re often forced to shower in a culture stream that feels uncomfortable. The movie preview so scary and violent you pee your pants. At CVS you hear a played-to-death Phil Collins song, and it brings you to your knees in despair. Or maybe you get stuck with morning TV in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Kelly Ripa and her friends are dressed up in inflatable sumo wrestling costumes. They are wrestling. (Technically, that’s Japanese culture.)

Quick culture quiz: Do you recognize the men in the image above?

What I know about the Beach Boys is that Brian Wilson went crazy; his breakdown ended The Beach Boys’ reign as pop music superstars. And I know that hipsters recognize Pet Sounds as a work of genius to rival some of the Beatles later albums.

Also, I saw Mike Love and other lesser Beach Boys play an Arabian Horse show at a Virginia coliseum in 1983. After the band played, the horses came out and ran around. The horses were for sale. Pretty expensive, too, as I recall.

As far as cultural literacy goes, the “sixties surf scene“ is pure and secure. A splash of vintage, a splash of pioneer. And the grainy film that captured it adds to the elusive vibe.

A taco shop in suburban NJ where I live has taken this surf culture as its brand/theme. There are longboards mounted on the wall. In the corner, a TV monitor screens vintage film footage: fifteen-foot waves, a crouch in the pipeline, tan girls in bikinis walking the shore in rapt admiration. Long straight blonde hair.

Walk outside though, and you’re still in a bedroom community outside of New York City, at least an hour’s drive from the beach. Even there, the waves are usually crappy. Lunch-breaking office workers in suits approach on the sidewalk . . . all they really want is a decent burrito.




*about the art: “Vegetables” by Joey Epstein and Tom Hachtman, photo by Ben Asen.
from The Beach Boys by Byron Preiss, Ballantine Books, 1979.