Monday, May 12, 2014


This past weekend, NPR (via KWMU, St. Louis Public Radio) broadcast its weekly edition of 'The TED Radio Hour'. I listened because I was in my car at the time it was broadcast, not because it's a must-hear radio program for me.
NPR's weekend broadcasts are usually pre-recorded, meaning they're not about things that may be in the up-to-the-minute, current news cycle. They tend to be more generally-informational or entertaining than topical. There's 'Car Talk', 'Prairie Home Companion', 'Radio Lab', 'This American Life', 'On Being' (formerly 'Speaking of Faith') and the comedy/quiz show, 'Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.', shows I usually at least partially listen to as I conduct my various weekend chores. The TED Radio Hour, not so much. Primarily because it airs during what I usually refer to as 'nap time' on weekends.
This weekend though, I was running a little late with my tasks and as I headed to Wally World in Desoto, this was on.
What's a TED?
From the web site:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
So they cover a broad spectrum of topics, some self-help-ish, some inspirational, some motivational. Mostly they aren't very interesting, and they are usually, terribly self serving. Some are okay though. I was not in the least captivated by this particular episode's topic, but I was captive in my car, so this is the subject I listened to.
'Mad Men' stuff. Create an image of a product that makes it seductive, exclusive, valuable. How this works, why it works, etc.
Cadillac, BMW, Avon, Campbell's Soup, Ray-Ban, New York City, Beef, (it's what's for dinner) McDonalds, Rolex, Apple, all are things, as well as carefully crafted brands that have been deliberately promoted to make people want them and also to want to be known as a person associated with that brand. 
I recall little new information from the radio show, but it did put my otherwise idle head into the game for a while. 
They did talk about how children are quite often subjects of brand promotion, get'em while they're young. This came as a complete surprise to absolutely no one.
So I thought about my own childhood, the earliest commercial influences where the brand of a thing was as important as the thing itself. 
Hot Wheels, G.I. Joe, McDonalds, Frosted Flakes. . .  Several companies made little metal cars, but only Hot Wheels had those super slick axles and the red stripe around the tires. There were lots of other military action figures as well, but only G.I. Joe had that peculiar, but trademarked, backward thumbnail.
Later in my youth, many more brands like Converse and Levi's became important. I hated, hated, hated, HATED Wranglers and Lee Jeans. It was Levis and Levis only. Because they fit better? No, not necessarily. As a High schooler I weighed about 120 pounds on a really damp day, no noticeable musculature at all, so any actual style points I ever actually achieved were inside my head only. Levi's were certainly good quality, but it was the unique stitch pattern on the back pockets that made them, and by association me, cool.
But then I recalled an even earlier bout of covetousness for a specific brand, well before blue jeans, even well before Hot Wheels and G.I. Joe.
In the early 1960's as I entered academia, I became immediately aware of socio-economic class at the hands-on, macroscopic level. Apparently this new-to-me community was littered with several kids my age that could have name-brand stuff. Those exotic things I'd only heard about during Saturday morning cartoon shows. I became personally aware that some people made and spent more money than my family.
In 1958 Crayola introduced the Rolls-Royce of crayon delivery systems, the mighty 64 pack "With Built-In Sharpener!"  (Original Retail Price= $1.)
I know, your own nostalgia just kicked in, you can probably even reproduce that unmistakeable aroma of them in your head. 
Sure, I'd had Crayolas, the 8-pack. My sister  even had the more impressive box of 16, because she always got better stuff than me.
Mostly at home though, we had a cigar box with dozens of bits and pieces of broken crayons, often with the paper peeled off of them. There were some Crayolas, but also many, many off-brand crayons. Crayola's were of course, far superior. The off brand sticks just weren't as vivid. There was definitely a quality difference, that was indisputable. 
Speaking of nostalgia, cigar boxes.
We had several around the house. They were great, sturdy, secure storage containers for crayons, pencils, bullets, makeup, keys, keepsakes. They also made excellent building blocks and ramps to launch cars. I even kept my precious toy soldiers in a cigar box. We got them, mostly King Edward brand, from my great uncle O.C. Dyer's general store across the street from our house. As kids, boxes were attainable and inexpensive (free) multipurpose toys. A banana box fit perfectly into my Radio Flyer wagon, converting it to a car or airplane or space ship as those imaginings arose. A small kid could fit into a banana box, it even had cut-out handles.
The cigar boxes also had a memorable aroma, the banana boxes, fortunately, did not.
Sometime in kindergarten, or it may have been first or second grade, some nearby kid pulled out of their red-plaid book satchel (the predecessor of the backpack) one of Crayola's finest. I recall her looking at the tip of an unfamiliar colored (to me) crayon, sticking it into the sharpener and spinning it until it was almost as sharp as a pencil. I was in awe.
The biggest problem with an 8 pack is that when it came to coloring people, faces, you had nothing. Coloring books were filled with brightly colored shirts, butterflies and airplanes, but faces stayed untouched. Sure there was a black crayon and a red one, but I was just bright and aware enough to know that black people were not really black, white people were not really white, and even Indians were not really red-skinned.
The 16 pack had the useless, and probably the result of a hilarious inside joke, completely worthless, white crayon. 
Not that my artistic skills suffered much due to my hue-deficit.
I recall looking through someone's 64 pack, scratching my head, baffled. 
Salmon? Sepia? Burnt Sienna? Apricot? Lavender? I didn't even know what those words meant. (The only seafood we ever had when I was growing up were frozen, breaded fish sticks.)
I could think of no use whatsoever for at least fifty of those colors.  (TV, even cartoons, were still black and white then.)
Still, I knew I wanted that box. The sharpener, the cutting edge of crayon technology, available only (some things have not changed) to those wealthier than me.
I felt jealousy, envy, and even humiliation. I became quickly aware of the pressures and anxieties of class inferiority. 
I was embarrassed to be seen with a mere 8-pack. It represented failure, poverty, shame.
Once again, it's not like I suffered artistically. I never was able, even to this day, to keep it within the lines. My unimaginative, artistically feeble, eight color brain could not begin to process the possibilities of that many options. 
Needless to say, as I recall it, everyone that had the big boxes produced all of the prize winning, hung on the wall masterpieces. My own efforts never even made it to the refrigerator at home, but mostly because we couldn't afford to waste money on magnets.
Thus, early on, I learned to cope with my lesser station in life. I simply stopped coloring. If you can't do it well, don't bother with it at all. Dancing, golf, well, every sport for that matter, mechanics, speaking in public, parallel parking, etc. also fall into that same category.
My crayons became mere markers for labeling shoe boxes with 'U.S. Navy' to convert them into amphibious landing craft. Or to draw faces and numbers on my thread spool football team. But coloring kites and puppies and butterflies in a coloring book? Nah, no good, I just couldn't begin to compete with the people that were able to just throw money at the task. 
As far as I can recall, this was my earliest encounter with class envy and awareness. Some people just had things that I could not have. I didn't like this, but I got used to it.
Thanks, Madison Avenue, Thanks Binney and Smith.*
Of course, I'm now a seasoned, middle class adult, wise in many of the ways in the world. I've known for decades the difference between hype and substance, style and utility, luxury and necessity. I am though, proud to be able to say that I can now easily afford the biggest box of crayons around, if I still wanted to buy them, which I don't.
A guy I work with drives a Jaguar XJR. It's a really, really beautiful car, I've ridden in it a couple of times. I certainly appreciate things like that, I understand the precision craftsmanship that went into that mechanical work of art. I am not jealous though, I do not envy my friend. This is what makes him happy and proud and he's willing to fork out the piles of money it takes to keep it not only running, but spotless. He spends more on a single wash and wax than I do for a month's worth of gas in my eight year old VW. That's his choice though, his own personal badge of honor. Me? I'd rather have an efficient, rugged, comfortable, low maintenance vehicle that I can drive daily, leave unattended much of the time and one that isn't expected to be pristine 24/7-365. Several of my co-workers own BMW's. My reaction to them is 'rear wheel drive, no thanks.' My last RWD car turned into a heavy, uncontrollable sled in winter weather.
Sure, I like nice things, I do often imagine that my life might be better with whatever is the current adult equivalent of that 64 pack with built-in sharpener, but I still doubt I'd ever find a single use for all those weirdly named hues. 
Maybe being raised without the 'best' actually did me some good. Maybe I learned along the way that having the most expensive, coolest thing is not really all that necessary for a perfectly happy life. . .
Oops! Gotta go, my $15/month flip phone is ringing.
Okay, then again, maybe I'm just cheap.

* Binney and Smith, Crayola's parent company, won a gold medal at the historic 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, for their product called "An-Du-Septic dustless chalk"  Subsequent boxes of crayons featured an image of that award against a gold background, the now-ubiquitous gold background that is still used on their packaging.