Tom McBride and Ron Nief called them “Mindset Moments.” They are the settings in which you have made a witty point or perceptive observation, yet you have been met with blank stares. The message is clear that your inciteful observation has fallen flat. And your audience doesn’t know what you are talking about.
These “moments” provided the impetus, 25 years ago, when Tom and I were still of sound mind at Beloit College, for the creation of the Mindset List and several books. It was a list we shared initially with faculty colleagues and, eventually, with audiences around the world with the warning:
BEWARE OF HARDENING OF THE REFERENCES.
An intriguing setting for these Mindset Moments today has come from late night comedians whose humor has missed the mark with their younger audience. Johnny Carson used to thump his microphone and ask “Is this thing working?”; Stephen Colbert looks to his band leader and they both shrug. In both cases they elicit a laugh out of the silence.
So, as a public service directed at family members, teachers, and employers of the next generation, we offer an occasional list of useful references that make a point but which should be used cautiously or footnoted in discussion.
We hope this improves the conversation.
The following, which have changed in meaning OR have no meaning at all anymore, are offered with a few afterthoughts.
The Enemies list – Richard Nixon wasn’t the first or the last president with such a list but he was the only one dumb enough to share it with colleagues and discuss it on an open mic.
Bankers’ hours — Hard to imagine when banks staying open after 3 p.m. or for two hours on Saturday morning were considered revolutionary marketing moves.
Corner office — Is anybody climbing the ladder of office real estate?
“Quarter to” or “Quarter past” — Choose an hour and add or subtract 15 minutes. Not easy to do digitally, and don’t bother tapping your wrist with a quizzical expression. You won’t get the time from a watch-less generation.
Coming on like gangbusters – While it has its foundation in a mid-20th century radio program that used excessive sound effects to welcome the busters of crime, it has fallen into the vernacular to describe anything that offers force, speed, effectiveness and success, anything going gangbusters.
“Just the facts ma’am” – Not surprising that it pops up frequently since every boomer knew Sgt. Joe Friday’s straight forward get-down-to-business approach to crime solving on Dragnet.
Ladies who lunch — From a 1970s Sondheim show, Company, it is, sadly, a dated reference to well (high) heeled, socially comfortable women who, mid-week, relaxed over negronis and salads at proper noon gatherings in order to plan the next social event.
Tin Pan Alley — This stretch of Manhattan’s 28th Street was the precursor of the “Garage,” Abbey Road, and the “yacht” as the center of popular music publishing. It remains the reference point for the “standards” of the past century.
The Collyer Brothers – OK, they’ve been dead a long time, but my mother always told me my room looked like the famed hoarding Collyer brothers lived there. I had to look it up and eventually read E.L. Doctorow’s imaginative telling of the Collyer brothers story in his book Homer and Langley)
The three-martini lunch – MadMen really happened in the sixties and seventies. Nobody noticed the bleary afternoon because everybody did it and thought that that was what the rest of the day was supposed to look like.
Twenty questions – Why 20? Not sure, but the 20-question format established mid 20th century on a hit radio show (that failed to fly on television) has remained part of the conversational limit in proper company. It pops up regularly snarled by cops and crooks in noir films: “What is this, a game of 20 questions?”
Is it bigger than a bread box? – One of the favorite opening questions of the panel on the aforementioned Twenty Questions show, the size and shape are lost to posterity.
The Last Dance – Once a slow romantic punctuation of the evening on the dance floor that could mark the beginning of something special, it has become the last gasp for an era or tradition ( e.g. Michael Jordan). Good Night Ladies.
Onion Skin – The delicate but highly durable and critical second sheets that preceded copiers. They may still be found tucked into books and files when cleaning out the folk’s attic.
Dialing a telephone — To the digital generation, the technique and physical process of using the digits for dialing is confounding. It was one of the first items in the original Mindset List: “They never dialed a telephone.”
The Third Degree, The Fourth Estate, The Fifth Column – The first is probably grounds for a judicial appeal; the second, the media watchdog of society, has been called “the enemy of the people” by a recent president; and the third has shifted from the communists to domestic movements, designed to undermine the government.
Monsters of the Midway – OK, everybody knows that they are the Bears, but they weren’t always. The term originally belonged to the University of Chicago football team which played right near the first “Midway” in the country, the Midway Plaisance built for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition that now runs through the University campus. You won’t confuse the two since U. of C. gave up footfall about a century ago.
The Gay Ranchero – Best to avoid the term unless you know who to whom you are talking. Term came from a film — not Brokeback Mountain—and it is now a dance club in LA.
Like a broken record – Vinyl is coming back but it just doesn’t scratch and crack like the old records did, catching the needle and jumping back each revolution to repeat itself. CDs just make strange sounds.
45s – Make sure you are not talking to the police or overheard if you tell someone that the box you are carrying or the trunk of your car is full of 45s. These “compact discs” of another generation are fine for target practice however.