random stuff

9/11 and Popular Culture Part Six

It’s the extra-sized sixth and final episode of a six-part miniseries that examines the books, movies, music, comics, and other popular culture that directly addresses or is about the attacks of September 11, 2001. This time, I look at an assortment of items, including “The Falling Man” (and an Esquire article written about the photo), an ominous PostSecret postcard, rumors and urban legends debunked by Snopes, Gordon Sinclair’s “The Americans” radio broadcast, the French documentary 9/11, comedy courtesy of SNL and The Onion, and the New York Mets’ return to Shea Stadium. Then, I close things out with listener feedback and final thoughts on the 20th anniversary.

A quick content warning: Though these events are now 20 years in the past, they are still traumatizing to many, and I also discuss some of my personal feelings and views, so listener discretion is advised.

And while I did answer feedback this episode, I still would love to hear from you, so feel free to leave leave comments on the Pop Culture Affidavit Facebook pagefollow me on Twitter, or email me at popcultureaffidavit@gmail.com. I’ll read your feedback on a future Pop Culture Affidavit episode.

Here’s where to listen:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Some extras for you …

(more…)

The Spiral-Bound Life

I have to go school supply shopping this week, and my kid has finally hit the point in his academic career where, after years of giant, unwieldy binders filled with reams of loose-leaf paper, he’s decided to just pick up some five-subject spiral notebooks. I knew this day would come and I’ve been praying for it. The spiral-bound notebook is such a perfect school supply. In fact, it’s so great that it’s the subject of two of my favorite poems, Eve L. Ewing’s “To the Notebook Kid” and Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook”.

I encourage you to read both in their entirety, starting with Dr. Ewing’s poem and ending with Mr. Kooser’s, because they reflect upon different ends of life. Ewing’s line about “the ocean/you keep hidden in a jacked-up five star.” is about potential, promise, youth, and sets up a great closing stanza; Koozer laments, “It seems/a part of growing old is no longer/to have five subjects, each/demanding an equal share of attention,” although even he hasn’t lost some sense of that youthful wonder.

To this day, I still write drafts in spiral notebooks. It’s mostly a comfort of habit, as I’ve been filling “creative writing journals” since I took Mrs. Taber’s creative writing class in my senior year of high school; however, it’s also something that has always felt right to me. There’s something more intimate to me about writing in a notebook than typing on a laptop, and even if you don’t agree with me there, I’m sure you can agree that writing in a notebook with its lack of open browser tabs is certainly less distracting than a laptop screen.

I made the notebook transition when I got to high school as well. It’s possible that I had binders in the ninth grade, but I was definitely full notebook by the time tenth grade rolled around, having started with that classroom-issued yellow paper with blue lines in first grade off of which you could never erase cleanly before moving on to huge binders full of college ruled loose-leaf and the “Midvale School for the Gifted” Far Side cartoon blown up to 8-12 x 11 as a cover and finally to the spiral notebooks. Yes, I occasionally had to use composition notebooks, which I hated because you couldn’t tear out the pages cleanly and couldn’t fold over as nicely as a sprial-bound; and I dabbled in the Wireless Neatbooks that were not neat and usually fell apart within a few weeks after they were purchased; but those spiral notebooks became the staple of my school supply shopping*.

Most of the spiral-bound notebooks I’ve purchased over the years have been your basic-model five-subject college ruled notebooks. But every once in a while, I splurge and buy a Five Star.

With a durable plastic cover that measures 9″x11″ with 8-1/2″x11″ sheets, the Mead Five Star maintains its neatness through quite a bit of abuse; plus, with pockets at each subject divider, it’s heavier than your average spiral-bound five-subject notebook. It’s a piece of equipment, not just a school supply, and the price shows in the craftsmanship, as it’s not going to look completely destroyed by February, something demonstrated in the commercials.

Now, I probably wasn’t thinking about that when I was in high school, but I did take note of how “together” everything stayed within a Five Star as opposed to the notebooks that I had whose covers had fallen off and were stapled to the books’ first pages. Also, the amount of crap that one can cram into a locker always astonished me. My high school had the lockers like you see in The Breakfast Club: a long locker with a coat hook but also an attached “cubby” for textbooks. That’s where you shoved your lunch bag and I’m sure where a number of my peers shoved whatever contraband they were bringing onto school grounds**.

Anyway, that durability was a trademark of Five Star’s ad campaign throughout the early Nineties, and in one commercial, they managed to not only hit upon all of the “silly ways this thing can be abused” ad trope, but also the “cool Gen-Xer ’90s teen” trope (I linked the commercial here, but play-through is disabled so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube).

Commenters on the YouTube video have pointed out that this is Todd Alexander, who played Rob on the PBS series Ghostwriter. That was a little after my PBS-watching days, but it’s still a cool connection to be able to make. Anyway, what I love about this is the way that Rob is yet another “cool teen in a cool room”, living the kind of suburban life that we were all sort of living, or at least wished we were living in 1994. He’s got his earphones in, he’s got his drumsticks going, he’s got a basketball hoop set up and always makes the shot. I was never this cool. Then again, you can’t exactly be cool when you ask your parents to buy you a two-drawer filing cabinet for your bedroom.

Mead would extend the whole Five Star concept into a line of school supplies, including backpacks, making the brand a huge flex for the teens … at least according to this commercial (again, play-through has been disabled so you have to watch on YouTube).

The actor is Christian Hoff, a former Kids Incorporated cast member who has had a long career as a character actor on television series throughout the last few decades. I’m not sure who the girl in the commercial is except that they were clearly going for a Career Opportunities-era Jennifer Connolly with the look. And he’s another typical ’90s teen guy, the douche who thinks he’s all that because a pretty girl looks at him for more than a split second. Of course, the joke being that it’s his school supplies that have her attention. Is the message here that having Five Star is going to get you noticed and maybe even in with the ladies? I’m … not exactly sure. If it was, then I missed my chance because had I bought a lot of Five Star back in high school, maybe I would have actually gotten a date.

Damn cheap basic notebooks.

* To this day, I remember my first trip to Staples in East Islip. My friend Rich had bought a three-inch Avery binder with a plastic window and that’s what I’d wanted for eighth grade. It was like Randall walking into Big Choice video in Clerks. I wanted everything.

** We had the privilege of not having to deal with overzealous local police departments who thought it would be fun to bring drug-sniffing dogs into the school on a semi-annual basis. At one school where I taught, this was the “code yellow” lockdown, and oh man, I could go on about the inequities of punishment that resulted from those searches.

My History of Lunchability

I spotlighted this on an old episode of the podcast, but back in the late 1980s, there was a Roy Rogers commercial that satirized the nastiness of school lunches.

The ad was controversial because of the way it punched down on hard-working cafeteria staff and was pulled rather quickly. Having been a high school teacher for 17 years now, and knowing the amount of work it takes to feed more than a thousand teenagers on a daily basis for way less money than they should be paid, I completely agree that it’s an insensitive commercial*.

If you’d asked me about that ad when I was in my teens or even my twenties, I would have given you that tired line of “Ah, people are too sensitive/you can’t make fun of anyone anymore/why can’t people lighten up and take a joke?”** I thought it was the best commercial ever produced, the pinnacle of satire. I still think it is, objectively, a brilliant ad because of the way it plays off a reputation even though the punching down is insensitive and unnecessary. The meals served in my junior high and high school cafeteria were often nasty: soggy BLT sandwiches, hot dogs with a seafoam green tint, the steamiest of steamed hams, and industrial-grade rectangular pizza that we referred to as “Ellio’s” as a way to fool ourselves every Friday. In high school, we’d have a separate walk-up window for Domino’s pizza at a dollar a slice, which is one of the saddest things I have ever had to type.

I didn’t buy lunch often, although that wasn’t always an appealing alternative. The 1980s and 1990s pre-dated our current era of thermal-lined lunchbags with ice packs, and while we all carried bitchin’ lunchboxes at the beginning of elementary school, by the time you hit fifth grade, you were more likely to be made fun of for bringing your ham and cheese in a Snoopy lunchbox. So from late elementary school to the day I graduated, I literally brown-bagged it with lunches my dad made the night before. Now, to his credit, they weren’t slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–he knew that PB&J was the worst thing to pack in a brown bag because it always got crushed at some point. These were turkey sandwiches with Alpine Lace Swiss chees on a semolina roll, ham and cheese on marble rye, or epic meatloaf sandwiches, all with a Yoo-Hoo box that had been frozen the night before so that it could thaw out in my locker and still be cold by the time I drank it for lunch. I ate well.

But I was, of course, the exception to the rule. Many of my peers had sad slices of bologna or boiled ham between half-stale pieces of white bread accompanied by a warm box of apple juice (or maybe a CapriSun if they were lucky) and a bag of Hydrox cookies. And this sadness went on for years in our school cafeteria.

That is, until Oscar Meyer changed everything.

Lunchables hit the market just as I was starting junior high school, and by the time I was in eighth grade, they were showing up more often among the “bringers” at the cafeteria table. A quick look at their history shows that Oscar Meyer developed them throughout the mid- to late-1980s as an alternative to the labor that cam with packing kids’ lunches every day. The company had conducted research with mothers, especially working moms who had school-aged children and whose commutes often made pressed for time. Oscar Meyer was the most well-known lunchmeat brand, and after the company merged with Kraft in 1988, they had the most well-known cheese brand to go with said lunchmeat. Add some crackers and you have an appealing, ready-to-go charcuterie plate that any kid would love.

At least that was the deal when they went nationwide in 1989, as the original Lunchables were a TV-dinner-esque box of cheese, crackers, and meat, although there was a “Deluxe” version that included extra meats and cheeses, condiment packs, and a mint. Those were meant to appeal to adults, as you can see in the commercial. In fact, I have to say that though I’d seen this commercial back in the 1980s, watching it now, I was struck by how basic it was. Then again, food companies in the late 1980s still thought the way to kids’ stomachs was through their parents and were aiming at them instead of the kids themselves***. That would change in the Nineties, as Oscar Meyer embraced the “Extremely Cool Extreme Kidz” school of thought.

You’ll also notice that by 1998 (when this commercial aired), Lunchables had expanded just beyond processed charcuterie. Varieties such as wraps, pizza, and hot dogs and hamburgers were part of the line, and their nutritional value was questionable at best. In fact, Lunchables became a poster child of sorts for the childhood obesity epidemic because of their fat and sodium contents****. But nutrition aside, you have to appreciate the Millennial that is this commercial. As well as this one, from 1996.

Now, I’m not going to generation shame too much here, but in the midst of all of Millennials’ current (and justified) crowing about economic hardships, we do need to remind them about how they basically had their asses kissed throughout their childhood and teen years.***** Commercials like these are presented as individualism in your lunch choices, but what they really are is a way to enforce the purchasing power that Millennials had as early as elementary school.****** They used to run minivan commercials where the kids were making the decisions on what car to purchase. You know, as opposed to having to suck it up and squeeze your gangly ass into the back seat of a Pontiac Fiero.

Anyway, Oscar Meyer really knew what it was doing here, even if these all looked really gross and I could feel my arteries hardening, blood pressure rising, and colon seizing as I watched the ads. Because it wasn’t about the food; it was more about making Lunchables seem cool to “kidz” and the thing that “kidz” wanted. Even at a young age …

This was probably the most famous Lunchables commercial, probably because it involved a cute little kid getting all hyped when he finally got the Lunchables that he wanted. And to be fair, he does fall on the “precious” side of the precious/precocious binary that commercials like this often had to navigate, but the parent in me is really annoyed here. I don’t want to crap on a kid, and I’ve never called my own kid ungrateful, but what an ungrateful little shit. Oh, I’m sorry that your mom or dad provides you with food every single day, food that’s probably a better nutritional choice than that road to a future stroke. I swear.

Plus, and this might be a “controversial” opinion here, Lunchables taste horrible. I speak from experience, having actually packing them a few times as a kid. Oscar Meyer’s cold cuts are B-grade at best, they are cut way too thick, and the crackers had less flavor than the pencils I tended to chew on when I was stressed. And the cheese? Oh yeah, thick-cut cheese left to sweat it out for four hours in a junior high locker? Who knows, maybe they have changed in 30 years, but back in the day, they were nasty.

I pack lunches every night before school and use better cold cuts; in fact, it’s possible my kid has only had a Lunchable once or twice in his entire life and didn’t like it either. But then again, it probably was never about the food and was always about the Lunchables experience.

* Huge credit, by the way, to my high school’s cafeteria staff, who did not slow down during the COVID lockdown and converted the high school cafeteria service to a drive-up, and went so far as to personally deliver lunches to classrooms during hybrid learning when the cafeteria seating was closed by mandate. They should be paid double and I’m not kidding.

** Somewhere, I have a long rant about the enormous amount of immaturity found in middle-aged men who constantly say these things that ties into all of the damage that bullshit sentiments like this causes.

*** This original Lunchables commercial also follows that annoying “rhyme time” trend of commercials from this era. I guess it was effective because I watched it and said, “Oh, I remember this rhyme.” But that didn’t make it any less annoying.

**** The turkey and cheddar Lunchables sold today, per serving contain 260 calories (100 cal from fat), 13 g of fat, and 670 mg of sodium.

***** I’m not kidding. Go read The Tipping Point.

******* And this should make them hate Boomers even more, tbh.

Wordiness

The back cover says it’s “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s” and offers up a sample of how it can improve word skills through the way it illustrates its entries as well as employs phrases and sentences to demonstrate proper usage. The front is a mish-mash of different images from inside, complete with the bubbly sans serif font that was considered modern for the day, as textbooks and reference materials were trying to show that they were not the stodgy, inaccessible tomes that lined the bookshelves and walls of classrooms and libraries. No, The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary was something else.

That’s a lot to lay on a dictionary, which is quite possibly the most utilitarian reference source you can own. But sometime around the second or third grade, I received my copy. I can’t remember who gave it to me–maybe my parents, maybe an aunt or uncle–I just know that it became a permanent fixture on the bookshelves and for a while, it was one of the coolest books I own. Granted, I have always been a dork when it comes to any textbook or reference book, especially those published from my childhood. I realize that it’s total nostalgia, but seeing one of my old reading books or the social studies textbook from second grade brings back memories of making book covers from a Waldbaum’s shopping bag and flipping ahead to units I hoped we would get to at some point in the year.*

With the dictionary, though, I didn’t have to wait for a teacher to cover anything, and during the next few years, if I wasn’t using the dictionary for actual schoolwork, you could find me flipping through it for fun**. Yes, I realize how that sounds. Like, who flips through the dictionary for fun? Furthermore, how the hell does someone flip through the dictionary for fun and not have that be the moment in the first act of the movie when his parents “knew” that he would grow up to be the inspirational genius that moviegoers have been suckered into watching in the dead of winter because there’s nothing else in the theater?

Come on, people, we’re talking about “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s!”

So what’s so special about this? Why am I giving this so much attention even though it’s just a dictionary? Well, let’s take a tour.

A sample page from the dictionary that shows both the illustrations as well as the use of font.

The Illustrations. Upon first glance, you can tell this is going to be a different dictionary than, say, your average Webster’s edition. The cover is bright with illustrations, which are also featured throughout the book. The illustrations were by George Ulrich, who has had a career as an illustrator for children’s books for more than thirty years. It’s a cartoony style of drawing that is also grounded in realism, a calmer, toned-down School House Rock! that accurately represents whatever needs to be shown but doesn’t shy away from being fun on occasion.

The Fonts. As fun as this book is in its illustration, the font choice takes its job seriously. We have a serif font (such as TNR) in place for most of the body text, but Helvetica is in play quite a bit. You might not really notice it, but I freakin’ love the font and I’m pretty sure that this is where my love for Helvetica began. Yes, it’s the very definition of generic, but the cleanness of that sans serif font made everything in the 1980s look and feel newer and slicker. Even today, Helvetica is comfort food to me***.

The History of the English Language. Before you even get to the words and their definitions, there is a section of the dictionary that is the story of English as a language, written and illustrated in that calmer School House Rock! manner. I’d read this section all the way through at one point, although the pictures stuck with me more than any of the text. And the picture that stayed with me the most was probably the most random one of all of them, which is the one of a person in the present reading a book. Like Helvetica, this was comfort food to me, the suburban kid, back in the early 1980s. The casualness of the pose and the common nature of the picture made me feel like that could be me in the picture but also a bit aspirational, like that’s what “ordinary” life should look like. It’s the same feeling I would get (and still do to a certain extent) watching an old episode of Family Ties.

Letter History. Whereas the pictures in the “History of the English Language” section were something I focused on more than the words, this part of the dictionary was something I obsessed over. Leading off each letter section of the dictionary, it’s a rainbow-striped guide to the evolution of the modern-day letter. We start with ancient Phoenician writing moving through Ancient Greek letters, Ancient Roman lettering, Medieval script, and finally showing the contemporary lettering via our friend Helvetica. Years later, I would take an introduction to Linguistics course in graduate school and I credit my love of these letter histories for my love of that particular course. The way that our language evolves (along with other aspects of culture) is fascinating, and if I have any academic regrets in life, it’s that I didn’t take more courses in topics like linguistics, anthropology, or sociology****.

The first page of “A”, which shows the evolution of the letter’s form.
The entirety of “X” in the dictionary.

The Definitions of “Run.” Okay, so now we’re actually into the definitions, and the one word that I would look up in this dictionary and then any other dictionary that I came across (even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in the reference section of my public library*****). I was amazed that this word could have 21 definitions (and even more listed in those other dictionaries). English, as a language, is complex to an almost horrifying degree, and I remember that when I see any of my students–especially English language learners–struggle with comprehending the rules of usage. The myriad definitions of “run” is a great snapshot of that.

X has one page. I guess this is more of a fault than a feature? Anyway, I always found it funny that the publishers decided to look at “X” and say, “Ah, screw it” leaving us with five definitions: X (the letter), Xerox, Xmas, X-Ray, and Xylophone. I mean, even “Q” has four pages (although all the words are “q-u” words) and they give “Z” a page and a half.

Zucchini. Speaking of Z, this is the last word in the dictionary. It also has a rather … phallic illustration to accompany it.

I touched upon how the book was important for fostering my curiosity as well as building a foundation for learning. What’s also important is that this book was mine. Not that I was ever discouraged from being curious about the world or writing, but I loved being able to do that on my own. Yes, it’s kind of like giving yourself homework, and it probably contributed to my being such a teacher’s pet for so many years, but I can’t help but feel grateful because of how I’ve never stopped being curious or interested.

* Yes, I was that nerd. Even in graduate school, I found myself skimming chapters that hadn’t been assigned just because I was interested.

** My parents had a dictionary on the shelves that was more “adult” and had an awesome reference section in the back. That and their copy of The People’s Almanac from 1974 probably deserve their own entries.

*** Not surprisingly, I was a high school yearbook adviser for 10 years.

**** There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have gone into sociology and/or media studies instead of toiling in marketing and then becoming a high school English teacher.

***** Holy shit, was I a nerd for that reference section. Books that were so special you could only use them in the library and not check them out? Oh hell yes. And THEN, I could look at the New York Times on microfilm.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 118: Generation X

Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?

In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some links for you ..

Time’s “Twentysomething” Article

Newsweek’s “Generalizations X” Article

Goodreads page for 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail?

IANXTC, the blog of Ian Williams, aka “Crasher” from 13th Gen

My 1994 high school student newspaper essay, “Generation X Is …”

Time’s “Me Me Me Generation” Article about Millennials

Joyce Maynard’s Essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”

73 Seconds

The Challenger at liftoff. Image from americainspace.com.

When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.

It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.

Christa McAuliffe. Official NASA press photo.

The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.

One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.

Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.

In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.

The Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.

Getting Rid of Cream of Wheat

Cream of Wheat

A box of Cream of Wheat in June 2020 as displayed on Target’s website.

Last year, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and found myself really affected by an exhibit on advertising.  The point of the exhibit was to show how Native Americans have been used to sell products by simply surrounding you with those products.  Floor to ceiling and wall to wall in this exhibit were packages of everything from chewing tobacco to baking powder oil with a huge television screen playing a loop of Native Americans in scenes from movies, television shows, and commercials.  It was a lot to take in, but that was the brilliance of the presentation because going in, I didn’t realize how common Native American imagery is in our popular culture and advertising.

I bring this up in light of an announcement yesterday that Quaker Oats and PepsiCo will be doing way with both the mascot for and brand name of Aunt Jemima.  This brand has been an everyday representation of a racist stereotype since its inception in 1889, and while there was online backlash from racists, I also saw a number of people reacting the same way I did, which was “Good, it’s about time.”  Granted, I stopped buying Aunt Jemima products years ago  because I make my pancakes from scratch and prefer actual maple syrup.  It wasn’t hard for me to say “good riddance” because I didn’t have a relationship with the brand.

That’s not the story when it comes to Cream of Wheat, though.

Most people reading this are probably familiar with Cream of Wheat cereal, and if you’re not, it’s a porridge-type farina cereal that’s prepared similar to oatmeal.  You boil some water, put the dry cereal in the pot, stir it until it thickens, and add whatever you’d like.  My wife jokingly calls it “bland white crap” and yes, it pretty much is the cereal equivalent of a loaf of Wonder Bread.  It is also been something I have been eating since I was a toddler, is the first thing I ever learned to cook on a stove by myself, and is something I ate the other morning the same way I have been eating it for nearly 43 years.  I have a very personal attachment to this particular brand, and that’s a problem because it has a very racist mascot.

Above the logo on the front of the box is a Black chef holding a bowl of Cream of Wheat.  It seems innocuous–after all, a chef is simply presenting you with food–until you understand exactly who the character is.  Debuting on the brand’s original packaging in 1893, his name is Rastus, which was a derogatory term for African Americans at the time and would go on to be a name of a character used in minstrel shows.  In older Cream of Wheat advertisements, he is depicted as illiterate and knowing nothing about vitamins, just that Cream of Wheat was tasty and affordable.  It’s very much the male version of the “Mammy” stereotype that we have seen on Aunt Jemima bottles for years and yesterday, B&G, the company that owns the brand, announced that it is “initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging.”

Now, if you read that last paragraph and were surprised by that information or just now realized there was a Black chef on the front of the Cream of Wheat box, I would say you are not alone and that is one of the biggest problems here.  In fact, I’d been ignoring the image since I was a little kid, and as I have been thinking about it, I have come to realize the damage that even the most harmless-seeming imagery can do.

There are people with way more academic credentials who have studied and written about the psychology of advertising, and I imagine they can elucidate this idea better than I can in a 1000-word blog post, but as I watched racists come with their “SJW PC Cancel Culture” whining, I saw how images like Aunt Jemima and Rastus are just as dangerous as statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  They are symbols that normalize cultures of oppression and second-class citizenry for African Americans by subconsciously reinforcing the idea of white superiority.

White people would react to that statement by saying, “I’m not racist and don’t believe I am superior” and I believe they consciously think that, but that’s how normalization works when it comes to cultural and systemic racism.  Normalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences*.  Since an image like Aunt Jemima has been tweaked over the years to be not as overtly racist, we can ignore its racist aspects and accept it as something that is just part of everyday life.  As a result, the racism is an ingrained quality, and it’s why we are seeing more and more calls to be anti-racist and think more deliberately about the oppression BIPOC face in our society and then take action to change or dismantle those systems of oppression.  When it comes to Cream of Wheat, this means refusing to buy more of the cereal until the mascot is done away with, and writing them to let them know (and while I was at it, telling them to re-brand Brer Rabbit Molasses).

Right about here is where a quote or a platitude would often be placed, but I think that would undermine the last several paragraphs.  What I would like to see is for this reckoning with our culture’s symbols to continue.  More White people need to educate ourselves about our history of racist branding and then and put pressure on those companies still using those images to change them.

*Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sargiganides, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness. Teachers College Press. 2019.

Pop Culture Affidavit 101: Retrospecticus

Episode 101 Website CoverIt’s the most self-indulgent, ultra-sized episode of Pop Culture Affidavit EVER!!!

Join me as I take a look back at the history of the blog and podcast; giving you its origin story; and respond to both emails and past blog comments on topics such movies, comics, music, and random stuff.  Then I share never-before-heard outtakes and conversations with Michael Bailey, Stella, Donovan Morgan Grant, and Andrew Leyland before Amanda joins me for a brand-new segment about music from 1997 and 1998.

Plus, I introduce and preview my newest miniseries, which premieres in November!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Here’s where you can find all of the guest spots …

0:17:40 Michael Bailey and I talk about cast members from How I Got Into College and Summer School and then talk about the syndicated show Super Force.

0:42:00 Stella and I discuss our initial reactions to Alien Covenant.

1:16:05 Donovan Morgan Grant and I talk about Roboetch (in footage that did not make the final cut of our episode).

1:43:00 Andrew Leyland and I talk about Nineties music.

1:52:05 Amanda and I disuss music from 1997 and 1998.

After the cut, you’ll find links to posts mentioned in the episode as well as some extras:

(more…)

Brand Me! (My Favorite Non-Toy and Giveaway Merchandise)

So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures.  We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.

Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.

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The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)

1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.

But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.

2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.

These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.

My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.

Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.

Return of the Jedi Party Favor

Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.

3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.

Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.

I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.

4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.

These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.

This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.

Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.

Voltron Lunch Box

The 1984 Voltron lunchbox.  Kind of makes me wish that I had it now.  I’d be the king of the break room.

5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.

Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.

I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).

Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.

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When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together).  Image: 3Djoes.com

6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.

Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.

Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.

To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.

Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 99: Livin’ Well in 1999

Episode 99 Website CoverIt’s the second of two “milestone year” episodes as Amanda sits down with me once again for a talk about 1999!

Over the course of our (much shorter this time) conversation, we talk music, movies, and television, but also delve into news, politics and culture.  We’ll look at the rise of and importance of Millennials, Woodstock ’99, teen pop, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, Office Space, the dawn of the age of reality televisionWho Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the Food Network, and MTV’s Undressed, among other things.

Plus, we talk about what it was like to graduate from college in 1999 and how we somehow survived our early twenties, and we also talk about how the issues and serious events of 1999, such as Columbine and the Bill Clinton impeachment still affect our culture and politics today.

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page