With unrepentant and oddly zombie-ish expressions, the two young lovers (or the two young actors hired to portray lovers) sit on the coffee table at 1107 Hope Street, as uncomfortably as if they were there in person.
They are here — like others in their space, before and after them — to tell the straitlaced elders of the Blumenau family about a problem they didn’t know they were supposed to be concerned about.
From the other side of the generation gap they stare, their blank faces promising little in the way of explanation or enlightenment.
But they must have something to tell the world:
They’re on the cover of Time.
On some levels, there is nothing about the August 21, 1972, cover of Time to set it apart from hundreds of other red-bordered covers from the same time period. I’m shamelessly using it because it’s attention-getting.
(Which, I imagine, is the reason Time created it in the first place.)
But on other levels, it makes a fine launching pad for a consideration of my grandfather’s relationship to mass media in general, and America’s largest news magazine in particular.
I’ve mentioned a few times that my grandpa worked as a draftsman at Time-Life in Stamford for many years.
He didn’t have any connection with the editorial side of the business; it wasn’t his job to rush off to Haiphong or Paris or Milwaukee on Henry Luce’s behalf to take the world’s ever-changing pulse.
Still, he was a faithful reader of the magazine. In fact, he held a lifetime subscription, courtesy of his longtime connection to the company.
(Time-Life arbitrarily canceled his “lifetime” subscription in the final year or two of his life, which was a rich source of black humor for a couple of weeks there.)
His grandson, in contrast, does not read the slimmed-down, dumbed-up mag that passes for Time these days.
For one thing, I have a very limited tolerance for Joel Stein. For another, I’ve discovered The Economist, which seems considerably more informative, comprehensive and adult than today’s Time.
And for a third, big trend stories — like “Sex & The Teenager” — tend to draw out my BS antennae. I rarely get very far into one before I start mentally punching jagged holes in the research, supporting evidence and conclusions.
It makes me wonder what attitude my grandpa took when he sat down to read stories like that in his latest copy of Time.
I think my grandpa trusted authority more than I do, and if an institution like Time magazine told him something, his default setting was to believe it — especially if he had no firsthand evidence to the contrary.
(There were no teenagers, sexy or otherwise, at 1107 Hope Street in the summer of 1972.)
But, he was not a stupid or credulous person. He had the analytical mind of an engineer, a tinkerer and a shade-tree mechanic, and I have to imagine he turned it to things beyond the merely mechanical.
When he sat down to stories like “Sex & The Teenager,” I wonder if he asked himself some of the base-level questions every consumer of mass media should ask themselves:
Who is telling me this?
Why are they telling me this?
What is their interest in telling me this?
How much of their evidence is one-off anecdotal, as compared to systematic study?
Do they answer opposing arguments with substance, or do they shrug them off?
Are they trying to influence me about the story’s importance through play and space? Is this subject truly as important — to me, and to society — as the story’s prominence would indicate?
And so on.
(Unfortunately, past cover stories from Time are only available to subscribers, so I can’t apply these questions to my own critical read of “Sex & The Teenager.” It might have been a decent story, for all I know … though I doubt it, kinda.)
The proper approach to mass media was just another of a million topics I never really covered with my grandfather.
So I can’t muster an honest guess on how he responded to lusty teenagers, or campaign finance, or the rise of skiing, or the troubled state of the Jesuits, or the bucolic joys of Minnesota, or any one of thousands of stories his favorite news magazine fed him over the years.
Perhaps he swallowed them all whole and unquestioned.
But I’m sure he read them with a decent degree of attention and concentration, anyway, which is a necessary prerequisite for critical thinking.
So I’ll leave him sitting in a comfortable chair in the front room … with the sound of traffic on Hope Street buzzing everpresent through the open window on a humid late-summer evening … furrowing his brow a little bit as he gets the word about Sex & The Teenager.