1990s

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.

“Kid 90” and the discoveries from Personal Archaeology

Toward the end of her documentary Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye talks about how she watches video tapes that she made of her and her friends in the early and mid-1990s and considers how she never saw the warning signs regarding those friends who died by suicide or because of drug abuse. She also mentions that she is living a lot of those memories for the second time and (of course) with the perspective of a now middle-aged adult. It’s a moment that is predictable because of the way we naturally consider such things after a tragedy, but is sad nonetheless and tempers a very nostalgic documentary with a sadness, making it more than superficial fluff.

If you haven’t heard of Kid 90, it was born out of the fact that Frye spent much of her childhood and adolescence recording both audio and video of herself and her friends in their everyday live, intending it as a private keepsake*. A few years ago, she dug up the material and began going through it with the intention of making a documentary about being a child star and a teenager in Hollywood during the 1980s and early 1990s. She originally didn’t intend to put herself into the film (except for the aforementioned archival footage) but as she told Variety, she was editing one particular segment and realized that in order to give it full context, she needed to be interviewed. And that’s how we get the moment I just described.

I came to this film via Hulu’s recommendations and upon seeing the description, put it on my watch list. Plus, I’m a mark for any sort of late 1980s/early 19990s nostalgia, and am like every other person my age in that I immediately associate Fry with her iconic role as Punky Brewster. I also remember her showing up on a couple of random sitcom episodes–The Wonder Years and Friends, especially. What I didn’t know was that her circle of friends consisted of actors and actresses I was watching regularly during my early teen years and whom were also about my age (Frye is a year older than I am). So when people like Brian Austin Green, Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Jenny Lewis started showing up in both the footage and interviews, and also oddly connected to it beyond just recognizing those faces.

Over the past couple of years, I have spent time going trough my own personal teenage archive. Most of the stuff I have been looking at has been my teenage journal, along with various ephemera I’d thrown in a box or storage bin and held onto over the years. None of it is nearly as star-powered as Frye’s video and audio footage of hanging out with Danny Boy from House of Pain, but I could at least relate to it on the level of digging into what you had in the past. But as I watched Kid 90, I also had the passing thought:

This is what it must like like for the cool kids to reminisce.

Oh yeah, that is flat-out one of the most idiotic thoughts a middle-aged man could have about people from high school, but I couldn’t help it. As the movie rolled, my mind flashed to Facebook group threads filled with pictures of them at house parties, seventeen with 1990s haircuts, flannels over Gap jeans, with Budweiser cans everywhere. And really, that’s what Frye’s home movies look like–suburban keggers but with famous people. There’s a point she makes in the film that her mom tried her best to her and her brother (Meeno Replace, the star of the NBC show Voyagers!) as normal a life away from their jobs in Hollywood as possible and this is the proof. The rooms they’re in, the general silliness that they’re up to (especially when they’re 13 or 14) all looks s if it could be taking place in any number of my classmates’ houses, and a world that I never entered. I spent many Saturday nights playing video games with friends or renting whatever movie I could get my hands on and then watching Saturday Night Live.

And while I’d like to be nonchalant and say “Ah, who gives as shit about school popularity when you’re 44?”, I have to also admit that this lack of coolness dogged me for quite a long time. I wound up with more tan a few toxic “friendships” and a laundry list of embarrassing and awkward moments, which my anxiety loves to weaponize on occasion, just to remind me who I am … or at least who I was. The world of the cool kids in my immediate vicinity was as much a mystery to me as the world of these ultra-cool Hollywood kids in the film. Frye goes from hanging with the ‘tween and teen jet set of the early ’90s to heading across the country to attend college in New York and befriending cast members from Larry Clark’s Kids, showing that she always had a “crew” wherever she decided to live.

But in the midst of all of that, there’s a real darkness. At one point, we hear an audio recording of her talking to a friend and trying to figure out what happened the previous night because she woke up at home not knowing how she got there. At another point, she is discussing how a guy at a party clearly raped her when he kept going even though she told him she didn’t want to. You can’t dismiss those stories by saying that it’s some symptom of Hollywood excess or that it’s another sign of how former child stars often become cautionary tales. No, ask around and you are bound to meet a woman who has had one of both of those happen, maybe even more. And, to bring in Hollywood, add the way the film industry treated her because of her body (she had breast reduction surgery at 16, which was a People Magazine cover story) and you have a look at how monumentally screwed up our culture is.

Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning of this piece–Frye’s perspective as a woman and parent in her forties. One of the reasons she began the project that would become Kid 90 is to see if how she remembered her teenage years was accurate, and I found myself relating to the honesty with which she approached everything as well as the bravery required to do it. You can always flip through an old yearbook and laugh at the silly or even heartfelt things people wrote to you, but there is a point where you have to decide if you want to cross the threshold into the uncomfortable and really meet the kid you were. As a parent, you want to see what you can learn from your younger self so that your kid doesn’t suffer the same fate. Sure, there are adolescent rites of passage that involve mistakes and regrettable moments and I know I can’t protect my kid from everything bad they might encounter, but I also know that part of my job as a father is to use the gift of hindsight to discern between true rites of passage and truly awful things that we are too scared to admit were wrong or even toxic.

Reopening old wounds, taking the blindfold off in the cave, digging into the past–whatever you want to call it–can suck, even when you know it’s going to be therapeutic and said therapy can last longer than intended. But it’s a testament to the fact that making it through any of it is a small miracle.

* A similar documentary from Val Kilmer is set to debut on Amazon Prime in August.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 123: Cardboard Heroes

The Eighties and Nineties were a boom for the baseball card and trading card industry, and since I was a kid, I was right there in the thick of it.  Join me as I recount my days collecting baseball cards as well as cards featuring characters from Marvel, DC, Star Trek, and Star Wars before looking at books and documentaries about the hobby.  Plus, I open four packs of vintage baseball and trading cards live on the show!

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here’s a gallery of the cards I opened (plus the gum) …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 120: When It Was Fun

In 1996, the Sayville, NY-based punk band Wasted Time released their only album, “When It Was Fun.” To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CD’s release, I’m interviewing the lead singer (and one of my oldest friends), Chris Lynam. We talk about the Long Island music scene of the mid-’90s, what made him want to play music, the band’s history, and the music he’s making now.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Don’t forget that if you’d like to leave feedback, you can email me at popcultureaffidavit@gmail.com!

And here are some extras for you …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 119: Talk Hard

Talk Hard! Steal the air! In 1990, the cult film Pump Up the Volume was released and it proved to be a formative movie experience for many teenagers of the time. So, 31 years after it came out, I sat down with Michael Bailey to take apart the film and see if Hard Harry’s words of rebellion still hold up.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you ..

The Ringer article “Talk Hard: The Making of the Teen-Angst Classic ‘Pump Up the Volume'”

The theatrical trailer:

A Spotify Pump Up the Volume Soundtrack Playlist:

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”

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 115: Sometimes the Clothes Do Not Make the Man

In 1990, David Fincher directed one of the most iconic videos of all time, “Freedom ’90” by George Michael. The video featured five supermodels lip synching the song and was a literally explosive deconstruction of the image he had created in his 1987 solo debut, “Faith.” So, on the video’s thirtieth anniversary, Amanda and I sit down to talk about George Michael and his music, do a video commentary, and then segue into a discussion about fashion in the early Nineties.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

After the break, here’s some extras for you.

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 114: Unsolved Mysteries of the Unknown

It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once.  I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time.  Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries.  Plus: listener feedback!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

After the break, here’s some extras for you, including four of the classic Mysteries of the Unknown commercial …

(more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 113: Taped Off the Radio

This time around, I’m back to looking at my history with music by going deep into the early 1990s and my early teens, recollecting those nights I spent in my room listening to the radio and rushing to hit record so that I wouldn’t have to wait for the station to play that Brian May song.  I talk about the stations I grew up listening to, the tapes I made, my unfortunate music choices, and how I learned about what was popular (and what wasn’t) before I finally got my own CD player.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

So here’s some extras for you …

So the picture above isn’t of my exact radio, but it is the radio I owned and used to tape all of those songs. It’s the Sony CFS-230 cassette-corder boombox. I got this for either my birthday or Christmas sometime in the late 1980s and it was eventually replaced with a cassette/CD player that I received for my fifteenth birthday.

And here is the Spotify playlist that includes the songs I featured in the episode. Enjoy!