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It’s at once exhilarating and terrifying.  My kids “know” Elmo.  I don’t mean we’ve been to Sesame Place (we haven’t) or that they watch Sesame Street (they don’t) or that they have three thousand Elmo-emblazoned toys at home (they haven’t).  I mean, they’re at the age where they’re pointing out all the Elmos in the world.  And that furry red monster is a sneaky bastard, lemme tell ya.  Dude is everywhere.  Sure there’s clothes, toys, and games.  Elmo has moved beyond the Tickle Me stage, and has matured into Big Hugs, Forever Friends, Lullaby & Good Night, Steps to School, Guitar Elmo, Potty Time Elmo, Counting, Trains, Soccer, K’nex, Memory, LeapFrog, and, the most disturbing evolution yet of the Tickle Me Elmo, “LOL Elmo”.  In addition to fruit snacks and applesauce with the tempting red furry mug on them, Elmo is now peddling a variety of Earth’s Best organic foods, including crackers, cookies, canned pasta in sauce, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, squeeze-pouch smoothies, and frozen entrees.

Unlike the happy meal or cereal box that comes with a prize (do they still do that? Or is an iTunes download more enticing?), these products have little to do with the character on them.  Maybe the crackers are shaped like Elmo’s head, but the oatmeal is just oatmeal.  They are simply branded to build loyalty, character recognition, and ring up sales.  My friend who is an expert in mass media is nodding vigorously right about now, and it’s no shocker.  Kids’ characters promote products to families with kids.

PhD please.

My children are just now entering the word-combining phase of their speech development.  We are collecting their gems such as “Mama poop” (a comment) “No, doggy!” (a condemnation)“Mama, off shirt” (a command) and “More oatmeal” (a request).  One of the things that fascinated me as they learned their first words were the semantic features they would use to differentiate between words.  “Cracker” was an early word, and it encompasses all small, crunchy hand-held foods, such as Chex, Cheerios, Ritz, yogurt melts, freeze-dried strawberries and Gerber puffs. My son uses his name to apply to all babies, in person or in pictures.  The children may understand many differentiations for footwear, but only a binary distinction is required expressively.  There are “choos”, and there are “cocks”.  And when they want their Crocs, you’ll know, as they shriek and point “COCK” at the top of their  lungs.  (and don’t ask me about how they pronounce “fork” and “shirt”).  Beyond the thrilling worlds of clothing and food, they’re learning about their environment and the people/animals in it.  Children’s authors receive a dictum that approximately 70% of books must contain farm animals.  I think the library associations are subliminally preparing our children for an agrarian lifestyle.  They’re also learning about furniture, everyday objects, and those big grown-up strollers: cars.  No shocker that “car” was one of their first words, and that “mama car” and “dada car” were two of the earliest two-word phrases.  Taking them shopping was a veritable sensory overload in the parking lot, trying to label and point to all the cars individually.  (There’s a car!  There’s another car! A car!  Look, a car!  Omigosh, another one!  Car over there! Here’s a car!”)

So it follows that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were identifying Abby Cadabby and Elmo as we ventured out into the world.  Mind, they’ve never seen the television tuned to any children’s programming.  We have books with these characters, and they occasionally have seen them on their box of crackers or in a Babies ‘R Us circular.  Taking them through Target or the grocery store is getting dangerous.  They’re liable to point out every Abby and Elmo in sight.  And of course, I get excited and proud when they recognize a familiar character or object.  Yes, my sweet little geniuses, that is a dog walking in our neighborhood!  That is an avocado just like we eat at home! But just as I can’t buy every avocado in the supermarket, I’m not going to bring home every Disney Cars toy either.

Planning their birthday party last year – I should say overplanning­ — I was lost for a “theme”.  Diving into the depths of Pinterest I saw all manner of one-year-old themes, from Eric Carle, to Dr. Seuss, to “You are my Sunshine”, to Mickey Mouse, to trucks.  I know the party is for the parents, to celebrate having survived the hardest year of their lives, have kept the defenseless slug-like child alive long enough to actually enjoy it, but I was perplexed by the themes.  Visits to the overachieving parents’ blogs would reveal, “Little Bisquick is so into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we carved a butter sculpture with naturally-derived dyes in the shape of a chrysalis”.  Or “Rubella is so into Cookie Monster we turned the house into a Sesame Street backdrop for photo ops”. I wondered if there was something wrong with my kids that they hadn’t expressed preferences yet.  Should they be “into” princesses or hippos or farm equipment by now?  Sure there are books we read over and over and over again until we know them from memory, but my kids’ demanding to hear “Moo Baa Lalala” for the 47th time doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the Sandra Boynton paper plates and napkins in the world.  I know they need repetition to learn language and concepts.  That’s why Blue’s Clues airs the same show five days a week.  It’s not so parents want to drive ice picks through their ears; kids actually learn that way.  (Learning from television itself, now that’s a separate story)

Once they started pointing out all the Elmos in the world, they also started pointing out more mundane things.  Cars, for one, but also doors.  My kids love to knock on doors, especially if their parents are behind said doors, trying to use the bathroom.  (I may have taught them this game, but I may have been influenced by a college roommate. I’m not naming names.  It’s funny if you’re 1 or 21, that’s all I’m saying.) So when we go to the children’s museum, they get excited by seeing the plastic bananas in the supermarket, riding the boat in the fairytale-themed exhibit, and knocking on the doors to the maintenance rooms.  Are they “into” doors?  Are they “into” bananas?

No, because outside of the sexy world of energy efficiency, Pella hasn’t figured out how to make doors fun and exciting to parents.  Chiquita hasn’t been working on cultivating the 3-and-under set to demand banana appliqués on their onesies.  There’s no commercial market place for unbranded products.  And no birthday theme packs, either.

I suppose that parents are so excited to see their kids recognize an object or character, that they project their own schema of interest, and that supplants the baby’s intent to just say, “Hey, mom, that’s a dog”.  Identifying the object (or pointing to every car in the parking lot) is the purpose of the interaction.  I know we want to support their growth, so we look for their interests.  We buy them all the Elmo drek, we fill their playrooms with vehicles and princess paraphernalia.  I think that gender roles and gender norms creep deviously into our minds and our parenting styles much more subtly than we think.  It’s not just the glittery pink Stride Rite shoes versus Star Wars action sneakers.  It’s also caregivers seeing a boy identify “car”, inferring that he’s into cars, and jumping on the boys-love-vehicles bandwagon.  They might ignore when their daughter does the same, or at least not praise it with as much overt enthusiasm.  You don’t have to explicitly tell a boy that dolls are for girls, but you might not perceive a boy as nurturing if you don’t recognize the times he pretends to feed his baby doll.

Have the marketers and ad agencies figured this out, too?  You betcha.  Put a character on a box of cereal or a carton of ice cream, and the kid will identify it, which the parent will interpret as “want”.  Even better, put it on a healthy, natural product (Princess carrots.  Have you seen these?), and the parent will coalesce the kid’s “interest” with their own desire to choose nutritious foods.  Once the kid does get old enough that the “interest” has been nurtured and funded, it’s only a matter of time until you overhear, “Mommy, I want Dora ice cream” and “But I NEED the Thomas backpack!”

That Dora cake at her first birthday?  That was all for you.  That carton of purple ice cream (or, technically, “frozen dairy dessert”) when she’s 5?  That’s to get you out of ACME without a major meltdown.

We got our Girl Scout Cookie fix early this year.  Mr. Apron brought them home from work, where 2 coworkers are selling them (assumedly for their daughters, but I see more adults shilling the cookies these days…).  He bought the lame peanut butter sandwich cookies, which don’t even have a proper name, and also a box of Thanks-a-lots. 

Thanks-a-lots, which were new last year (or recently, at any rate), are the best cookie there is.  Yes, Thin Mints have their die-hard fans, and Samoas do satisfy a certain need for junked up cookie + caramel + chocolate + coconut, but Thanks-a-lots are special.  They have the gimmick of the phrase “Thank You” printed in different languages on their circular surface, but at the basest level, they’re just shortbread dipped in fudge.  They are beautiful dipped in tea, as the fudge melts ever-so-slightly, and the cookie soaks up the yummy warmth.  They’re excellent following a snow-day meal of soup.  They’re just the best.

The cookie is no different this year.  The packaging, however, is.  From the GSA’s PR department:

“It’s Girl Scout Cookie time, and this year’s sale demonstrates thinking outside the box—literally.

“In a pilot program, “Thanks-A-Lot” Girl Scout Cookies, a shortbread layered with fudge and embossed with “Thank You” in five different languages, will be packaged only in its film-overwrapped tray, discarding the use of the traditional paperboard carton.

“Even though the cookies come in a different container, each package has the same number of cookies found in the traditional paperboard box, and the film-overwrapped tray keeps them fresh. Both the film and tray are recyclable. In addition, the packaging change saves energy.”

To which I say, bullshit. Now, instead of a cardboard box I can recycle easily, I have to throw the whole package into a large Ziploc bag since the “film-overwrapped tray” does not reseal.  I cannot find the # the plastic is made of on the outer packaging, so I effectively cannot recycle it.  Many cities do not accept plastic for recycling.  And I am generating more waste with my additional plastic bag anyway. 

“The packaging change saves energy”?  It generates good PR for GSA is what it does.  If it’s so awesome for GSA, why didn’t they do it for all the packages, instead of just this variety?  Why didn’t they pack them up in resealable packages to preserve the cookie, too?   Why not use recycled containers?  Why not use eco-friendly inks?  Why not mathematically rearrange the # of cookies to minimize the surface area of packaging in the first place?

I’m not just ripping GSA a new one; I’m venting on the “green” trend so prevalent in commercial products in general.  I’m so sick of companies trying to swindle us into believing they’re good for the environment.  Oh, the Deer Park water is using a smaller cap so as to conserve plastic?  Good for them.  How about getting a reusable bottle and eliminating the need for Deer Park water altogether?  Equally nauseating is trend of the non-woven grocery bags being offered for sale.  They’re all made of polypropylene, so we’re using more fossil fuels (yes, it’s plastic) in order to fuel our need for reusable bags.  What’s wrong with a tote bag made of renewable resources, you know, like cotton canvas?  It seems all companies are doing these days is slapping a leaf or the word “green” on their packaging and calling it a day.  They’re still selling you a product, and more consumer waste products.  Girl Scouts of America is no different.

Since the partial or full retirement of the author-illustrators of Foxtrot, For Better or For Worse, and Cathy (not to mention Calvin & Hobbes), there now appears to me a dearth of daily comics which is not entirely filled by the blogger extraordinaire, Hyperbole and a Half.  To be a true daily comic, entrenched in the dying tradition of print journalism, one needs to have reassuring cycles that ebb and flow with the seasons and holidays like the storefront windows of Anthropologie. 

This is your chance, this is your opportunity.  Step up, step into the void.  All you need to be a successful daily comic strip writer-illustrator is a few random, endearing characters (and a few annoying ones, for conflict), a setting half a dozen readers can identify with, and the same hackneyed content that has sufficed since ye olde comics of the 1680s.  Only the technology and pop culture references have changed.  Behold: follow these themes, and you will not be led astray. 

January:  Talk about New Year’s resolutions, specifically about losing weight.  Have your characters make half-assed attempts to join a gym, with hilarious results, or have them impulsively buy a parody of the year’s hottest piece of fitness equipment (see: Ab Roller, Shake Weights, NordicTrak, ThighMaster, BoFlex, the Gazelle).  Jokes about snow and shoveling also work here.  In summary, kids like snow, adults don’t.

February: Include plot lines of women having unrequited crushes on men of unattainable hotness.  They will defensively decide they don’t need men anyway to be a liberated feminist, then predictably break down on Valentine’s Day when no man validates their post-feminist femininity.  For jokes about snow and shoveling, see January. 

March: This is a slow season for weather-related or holiday-related jokes, so you can take this opportunity to delve into some character development or plot advancement.  Or not.  You can just spin around the usual themes of men’s incompetency in the home and women’s feelings of being overworked.

April: Mandatory will be an April Fool’s Day strip.  Start thinking of it now.  Much like the pranks your characters play, your strip will have to be more foolish than the one above or below it on the page. Feel free to make jokes about kids and Easter Bunnies and chocolate eggs and mishaps that may occur when kids find Mommy hiding eggs. 

May: You may begin wrapping up the school year.  Your characters who are of age to have finals will want to start complaining about studying, and their parents will get to harp on them for not studying.  As characters rarely age in strips, you can reuse these frames year after year.  Just make sure to change the children’s procrastination box from Sega Genesis to Wii.  Don’t forget Mother’s Day, you’ll get a lawsuit from Hallmark.

June: Began berating women for not having bikini-ready bodies in time for summer.  Begin culminating events such as graduations, recitals, etc.  with appropriate homage to Father’s Day (see note from May re: Hallmark). 

July: Now is an ideal time to take your family on a trip.  This will have to include unplanned stops, forgotten animals, kids having to pee at inconvenient times, and missed air planes.  This adds to intrigue, and will have your reader tuning in tomorrow to see what other hilarity they can relate to.  Camping also works, if you’re outdoorsy, and know how to draw such things as Sterno, a tent, and hip-waders. 

August: Your strips’ children will have to make the back-to-school bitching session.  The parents will always declare how relieved they are to do back-to-school shopping, and that they are counting down the days until school starts.  People who hate their kids will be able to relate.  You will receive fan mail: “This is SO my house! I can’t wait until Johnny goes back to school each fall!!!”

September: Kids will come home from the first day of school with mountains of homework.  This is a mandate.  You may wax nostalgic about the autumn coming, and start to age your older characters, as it will be the “autumn” of their lives, so to speak.  Don’t kill them yet.  It’s better to do this around the holidays, which will be harder for years to come as a result.  Go for maximum effect. 

October: Make full use of Jack O’Lantern frames, full of fantastic faces your readers will try, but fail, to emulate.  Dress your characters up in costumes way better than anything available in real life.  Include joke about out-of-touch adult mistaking child’s “obvious” costume for something else.  Leaf-raking themes are also acceptable.  Characters will claim to be waiting for neighbors to rake their leaves first.

November: See October’s note about leaves.  This can also tie into a theme about getting teenagers to do chores.  Teenagers hate to do chores, so they will identify themselves in these frames, and will use your strips to roll their joints, which will be ironic.  Somehow.  Begin sappy strips about family.  Alternate with humorous strips about family.  Mothers-in-law are excellent targets.  Mothers, too, as their children will never be able to measure up to their expectations. 

December: Continue with previous themes of family visits and general saccharine feel-good strips.  Alternate with cultural commentary about tacky Christmas sweaters, overeating, gift exchanges at work, the must-have toy of the moment (see: Tamagotchi, Tickle-Me-Elmo, Zu Zu pets, and Cabbage Patch Kids).  You are now perfectly positioned to begin January’s strips all over again with weight loss struggles, gaffs about toys not having batteries, kids playing with boxes and wrapping paper instead of aforementioned must-have toys, and snow shoveling. 

Well, there you have it.  Twelve months of fresh, novel content for your new comic strip.  It makes me all the more thankful for the unpaid, underappreciated online comic strip artists who dare deviate from the formula.  Keep up the good work, guys.  It’s a shame your strips will never be used to wrap gifts.

I’ve been driving by this establishment for years, and have seen this particular oddity in signage many times.  Finally this week I learned how to e-mail myself pictures from my camera phone, so you lucky readers get a treat.  Enjoy.

I wonder if they have a drive-thru window.

There’s no mention of the dry cleaner’s that shares the building, but why would you need to?  Really, I think it’s clear enough from the sign.  Seriously, what else could possibly mean with that sign, other than they have a tailor on staff with some speedy skills?

Yes, I did.  I watched the Rocky Horror episode of Glee.  More than that, I planned to watch it.  I rarely plan on watching specific episodes of TV.  I am not good at following a series from week to week, and I often find myself watching shows like Law & Order or Arthur, where the characters are familiar, but you can basically jump in at any point in the narrative.  With most sitcoms, the reassuring fact that everything will be resolved in 22 minutes means I don’t have to follow to be able to follow along.  Along the way, I’ll pick up key reoccurring elements, or plot developments so I can make cultural references that are somewhat on target. (I know it happened when Ross & Rachel were on a break; I know about the Soup Nazi and the Chinese restaurant episodes of Seinfeld.  Well, maybe I’m a decade behind, but I used to know the cultural lexicon…) Still, when a coworker started telling me about Glee, I heard the fantastical plot, and started watching, just to see.

I won’t lie and say I’m hooked.  It’s not a show you watch for the plot.  As a matter of fact, here’s the plot: Hey, we’re in a competition against insurmountable odds.  Wow, we won.  Oh, no!  There’s another competition coming up. And let’s swap boyfriends, just for the hell of it.  Throw in some pregnancy, some OCD, and some thin characters, and that’s basically it.  But I do enjoy the show.  I love watching the staging, hearing the singing, and suspending disbelief in the way we always do when watching anything with the word “musical” in it.  Breaking into song in the library and having a full back-up band, doo-wop girls, and a chorus line?  Bring it.  Dancing on top of chairs in perfect pitch while lifting girls skyward, as you pretend to be a 15 year old in control of his voice?  Right on. 

I guess Glee is supposed to appeal to the musical theatre/pop music nerd in all of us, focus on nerd.  The glee club is supposed to consist of cast-offs from high school, of the socially retarded dregs of teen society, of the losers, the geeks, the gays, and the band-dorks.  I buy it, in some respects.  Take Kurt, the only openly gay guy in school.  Surely he’s an outcast.  Take Rachel, who is routinely ridiculed for dressing like an old lady and is just too much of a goody-goody overachiever even for me.  Surely no one really likes her.  Take Quinn; have a baby in high school and…wait?  What’s she doing back in school?  Where’s the baby?  Oops, I guess I dropped that plot line when I missed the season finale or something.  I’m sure they tied up the loose ends very neatly.

Anyway, for all the progressive messages on homosexuality, acceptance of kids with Down syndrome, and issues of teen pregnancy, I don’t think they did a good enough making it look convincing dorky.  Sure, they talk about joining the Glee club as being social suicide.   Where are the real musical theatre dorks?  Where are the wholly undate-able guys with greasy long hair?  Where are the girls wearing acid-wash jeans?  Where is the outcast who inexplicably wears military fatigues everyday?  The girls who haven’t discovered a hair brush yet?  The guys wearing eyeliner and skulking in the corner?  And even Rachel, who is supposed to be the one who dresses like a frumpy old lady, is wearing designer labels.  Aside from her cardigans, which I’m sure are a dorky affectation, here is my point: I shouldn’t be overhearing middle-schoolers saying, “I just bought the dress Rachel wore on last week’s episode.”  People who are committing “social suicide” are not supposed to be trend-setters for legions of impressionable youth. 

With product placement seeing an explosion (notice people on the screen are now drinking real Coke on TV, and driving real Cadillacs, and sporting real logos?) on television and in movies, it’s no surprise websites like Cool Spotters are springing up.  From their site:  “Coolspotters is an online service that makes it easy to discover and buy the products, brands, and fashions being used by your favorite celebrities – in their real lives, and in movies and television.”

Find that Schiaparelli-inspired H&M Kerchief print sweater that Rachel wore. Or the Anthropologie moth sweater that Emma wore (I want this; you can buy it for me, but not in that pastel teal color).  Or, of course, the lacy Marc Jacobs number Tina the faux-stuttering dork wears to school on a regular basis.  I mean, don’t we all?  What?  You mean musical theater outcasts don’t wear Alexander McQueen to school? 

Just don’t tell Glee.  It’d be too unbelievable.