It’s second of a series of three episodes about America: its history, its people, and its culture. This time around, I am looking at A Day in the Life of America. My coverage includes a 1968 Department of Defense film called “A Day in America”, the 1986 photo book A Day in the Life of America, the 2003 photo book America 24/7, and the 2019 documentary A Day in the Life of America. What do they capture and tell us about ourselves? Listen and find out.
Content Warning: This episode includes me sharing my political views. Listener discretion is advised.
After four years and six films, John Hughes left the teen movie subgenre behind in 1987, but not before producing one last film, Some Kind of Wonderful. Join me as I take a look at the film, its novelization, the soundtrack, and evaluate its place in the teen movie canon and 1980s film history.
It was generic. It was kind of lame. And it was everywhere. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, “Corporate Rock” ruled the airwaves. But what, exactly, was “Corporate Rock”? Join me as I plumb the depths of middling rock radio with a playlist of mid-tempo rockers, power ballads, and the ultimate Corporate Rock song.
When you start reading comic books decades into a character or even an entire publisher’s existence, how do you go back and find out all of the stories that got them to that point, especially when it’s 1991, you’re fourteen, and you don’t have money, a car, or the Internet at your disposal? Well, join me as I talk about how I learned about Marvel and DC’s histories through their “official” history accounts: The History of the DC Universe, Marvel Saga, The History of the Marvel Universe, and The Other History of the DC Universe. Plus: listener feedback!
So I’m sitting here on the second snow day of a week where I was supposed to return to teaching after a two-week winter break. I’m not exactly upset or stressed about any of that, to be honest, especially since I was lucky enough to not lose power and aside from two large branches that fell off of a tree, there’s been no huge damage to anything. Meanwhile in my closet sits the sweater I got for Christmas and was going to wear when we got back on Tuesday.
That was always a weird flex when we were in school, wasn’t it–showing off the new clothes you got for Christmas, as if you were reminding everyone of the prowess you displayed back in September when you rolled up to first period wearing what your parents had taken you to buy at the mall at the end of summer. At least, that is, if you were one of those kids who cared about such things that you had to make showing off a priority.
I’d say that this was at its worst when I was in junior high school. Oh sure, it was there in high school, college, and even during my time in the work force, but something about the insecurity everyone was feeling during those years combined with the Lord of the Flies-like pressure to come out on top (in what competition, I don’t know) meant that even when you didn’t realize it, you were constantly trying to be noticed. I’ve done enough of a post-mortem on those days to know that there were shirts I wore or stuff that I owned that I was hoping would help me score cool points (again, in what competition, I don’t know) but usually went unnoticed or got me laughed at.
So yeah, I wasn’t successful at showing off. But I was pretty observant about how people were successful at it, a combination of the right stuff, good timing, and nonchalant attitude. I could acquire the first, might learn the second, but would never have the third. Plus, they’d earned that attitude, emerging in fifth and sixth grade from the primordial sludge into the higher echelons of cliquedom while dorks like me were still completely clueless.
Sounds ridiculous? Well, you have to consider how they’d been practicing almost daily since we were kids. When I think back on my time in the public school system, especially in my hometown, Sayville, kids were always showing off, as my students used to say six or seven years ago, their swag. Let’s look at five of them.
The shirt of a “cool” brand with extra points if you were repping a “cool” local business. This started in late elementary school and wound its way through junior high school and may not have applied everywhere, but definitely was a big deal in a town like mine, which had a full-on Main Street and a number of successful local businesses that weren’t just gift shops and drug stores. Being that Sayville had one of the three large Fire Island Ferries terminals, we had shops that catered to the beachgoer. One was Summer Salt, which was a store that I guess you could call a “beachwear boutique” and that carried merchandise for just about everyone.
You’d see a few kids in the hall–usually girls–with pastel-colored Summer Salt T-shirts from time to time and they were enough to garner a momentary turn of the head, but I’d say that if you were walking around in a shirt you bought from Bunger–the skate and surf shop on Main Street–then you were a heck of a lot cooler. My hometown had a deep skateboarding and surfing community (that often overlapped) and I’m pretty sure that Bunger (or “Bunger’s” as we called it) was where they got their Vision Street Wear and Sex Wax T-shirts as well as the store’s own shirts, which at least a few people could be spotted in the hallways wearing. In fact, the store was so cool that I remember there was a painted mural on the wall of the purple side of the junior high cafeteria that showed a bunch of kids hanging out in front of the store’s entrance. That’s cache.
While Summer Salt went out of business years ago, Bunger is still in town, so for all I know there are kids walking the halls of Sayville Middle School (after 30 years, it’s still weird calling it that) in Bunger shirts, perhaps wearing their parents’ vintage ones from the early Nineties.
A Gap bag for your gym or swim clothes. Keeping with clothing, Gap was ubiquitous by the time I started junior high school in the fall of 1989 and I don’t think I’d stop shopping there until maybe the early 2000s. And man, Gap antique washed jeans are still my favorite jeans of all time. ANYWAY, I’m not talking about Gap clothes here because tons of people went to the Sun Vet, South Shore, or Smith Haven malls for school clothes; I’m talking about the navy-colored plastic drawstring bag with “Gap” on the front. On the days when you had to bring a change of clothes to school–you were switching out the stank-nasty mess that was in your gym locker or your gym class was at the junior high pool that day (yes, we had a pool at the junior high and there was a swimming unit in gym class … it’s still too traumatic for me to write about)–you peacocked a little by bringing those clothes in one of these bags.
And by “little”, I mean that this was a minor flex, a reminder that you fit in, even though the reason you brought the bag with you was because your parents had the bag lying around the house and it was sturdy enough to endure being dragged from classroom to classroom while containing a damp bathing suit and a towel. Plus, you could tell that a person walking around school with a Gap bag was trying to show off by the way they carried it, making it incredibly obvious. And yet? That shit worked for some people (read: people who weren’t me).
A Friendly’s bag for your lunch. Speaking of bags that were flexes, this went as far back as elementary school in the Eighties. Sayville has a Friendly’s and that place has been in business for at least the 44 years I’ve been alive, and unless that company completely goes under, I can’t imagine it ever closing. Too many post-school function sundaes were eaten there in my lifetime and I’ve had more than a few fateful meals with friends and girlfriends there (when, that is, we weren’t at a diner). But back in the day before the chain’s ice cream was available in supermarket freezer sections, Friendly’s (which was still just “Friendly”) did a steady take-out business. You could walk in, grab a rectangular half gallon from the self-serve freezer, pay, and leave. Sometimes, your parents even sprung for hot fudge (which was freaking amazing). When they bought the ice cream, the person behind the counter put it in a thick paper bag with “Friendly” on front. And since that ice cream was going in the freezer when you returned home, you could ask your parents to pack your next day’s lunch in the Friendly’s bag and not your lunchbox. Oh sure, that Voltron lunchbox was mint, but a Friendly’s bag? People noticed.
Drawing the “S” correctly. You know the “S.” We all know the “S.” Believe it or not, even my students know the “S.” Now, it’s not really hard to draw the “S”, but you’d be surprised at how easy it was to screw up, so that meant the really cool people could draw it really well.
This drawing is an old graffiti-style S that was, at one point, incorrectly attributed to the Stussy brand (and some will tell you was a Stussy logo at one point, although I think that’s some sort of Berenstein/stain Bears Mandela Effect stuff), and was everywhere throughout the country’s schools back in the day. That’s pretty amazing considering that the Internet didn’t exist and it wasn’t something in a television show’s logo. It was just … all over the place.
That being said, it was really popular to draw on notebooks and binders where I grew up because the name of the town was Sayville and people would basically draw the “S” and “ayville” after it.
Because of course we did.
I think the “S” was passé by the time high school rolled around, and I saw more people writing the logos of bands they were into on notebooks, desks, or lockers than the ubiquitous character. But I’m sure that if you asked anyone from my generation to draw it from memory, they could do it in a heartbeat.
The Bic four-color pen. Need I say more? If you had this in elementary school, you were a god. Bic introduced this pen–a retractable pen where you could choose between blue, black, green, and red–in 1970 and it was still going strong through the Eighties (and still is–you can buy them on Amazon). These were especially powerful before the fourth grade when we were mostly using pencils to complete our work and hadn’t transitioned to pens.
Someone having this in class was as if they’d brought a toy to school. Everyone wanted to try it. Furthermore, it brought a new dimension to pen fidgeting because you weren’t just clicking the pen on and off, you were clicking between four colors. And like I said, we were all still using pencils, so having a pen in, like, the third grade was so cool.
These may not exactly be Lacoste sweaters, Gucci bags or rolling up to the first day of your senior year in a brand-new BMW, but they definitely did their job, and if I remember, I’ll try and notice what my kids are doing.
It’s the tenth and final chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe in December 1991 with a special focus on the final days of the Soviet Union. Then, I take a look at my two favorite Cold War films.
I’m one of those nerds who will spend loads of time flipping through old publications. When I was a kid, I’d flip through the back issues of TV Guide that my grandmother was hoarding. I would go to the library and look up old issues of The New York Times on microfilm. And until they sold them off, I would spend some of my planning periods flipping through the perma-bound copies of Life magazine that my school library had in a study room. And while the articles and photographs in these magazines were always fascinating, it was the advertisements that I spent the most time poring over. I have always been fascinated by what people bought in the 20th Century and how those products were sold.
So it’s no wonder that I’ll spend hours scrolling through scans of old Sears catalogues, and because nostalgia tends to run my life at times (okay, most of the time), it’s no wonder that most of the time when I’m scrolling, I’m peeking at the phone book-sized “Wishbooks” from my childhood in the 1980s and remembering what my sister and I used to circle around the time our parents were asking us to make our Christmas lists. If you don’t believe me, check out WishbookWeb or one of Dinosaur Dracula‘s many posts (and Matt over at DD is an amazing writer who’s been finding wonderful nostalgic bits for more than 20 years, so you should read all of his posts). So the Sears books (and by extension JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and even Toys R Us) are well-worn territory in the nostalgia blogosphere, and as much as they were part of my formative years, there were others that were a regular presence in my life during the late 1980s and early 1990s that had even more of an impact.
Now, I still get a fair amount of catalogues delivered to my house, but thirty years ago we were not yet inside the dot-com bubble and were certainly not shopping online yet, so if you wanted to get something that was physically unavailable to you at a local store or the mall, you either accepted the fact that you were probably out of luck, or you filled out an order form or called a 1-800 number on the back of a catalogue. Living on Long Island afforded me many commercial options, including no fewer than four malls within a 20-mile radius, so clothes, toys, and media weren’t exactly hard to find. So what catalogues I do remember paying the most attention to were as niche as they came–and I don’t just mean Mile High Comics, which I ordered from pretty regularly.
Because we got the catalogues. We got all the catalogues. We even got a catalogue of catalogues. No, really. it was the size of the booklet you’d get from Columbia House or BMG and had listings of catalogues that you could get sent to your home. In fact, such a thing still exists in the form of Catalogs.com, where you’re just a couple of clicks away from having various catalogues sent to your house. For all I know, it’s the same company that was sending us the catalogue of catalogues thirty years ago; and yes, I’m pretty sure I circled catalogues in the catalogue of catalogues for my parents to order. I don’t know if they ever did. But I do know that a day didn’t go by when they were in the mail: Plow and Hearth, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Spiegel, Victoria’s Secret, Talbot’s, Chadwick’s of Boston, Abercrombie & Fitch … International Male? Yeah I was perplexed by that one, too, especially since if I wanted a pair of Cavariccis, I could probably find them for sale within a mile of my house; I mean, it was Long Island.
Anyway, most of these catalogues were discarded within a flip-through. Some, such as Columbia House, BMG, and Mile High Comics, became research for possible entertainment purchases. But there were others that were just interesting enough to warrant an actual read through, and we even ordered from on occasion. In fact, I still get a few of these and may have ordered something for Christmas.
It’s the ninth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from September 1991 to November 1991 with a special focus on real-life spies in the KGB and the CIA. Then, I take a look at two “the Russians are our friends (sort of)” films in 1987’s Russkies and 1990’s The Hunt for Red October.
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.
It’s the eighth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from June 1991 to August 1991 with a special focus on the attempted coup on Moscow by Soviet hard liners, an event that led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin to the world stage. Then, I take a look at two of the most important movies of the mid-1980s, the movies that “won the Cold War”–1984’s Red Dawn and 1985’s Rocky IV.