On Writing, Part III: Activism
I don’t want to come across as a jaded 30-something curmudgeon, but I do not get this new lazy man’s way of standing up to injustice. Hit the “like” button on a Facebook page from the comfort of your corner table at Starbucks and you can pat yourself on the back that you’ve just saved a few baby seals from being made into mukluks, living room rugs or Justin Bieber wigs. Although, yes indeed, job well done.
Getting back on my “paper and pen” soap box – yes, I know it’s hypocritical to be blogging this – what happened to the way of good old fashioned advocacy? Back when you could change the world one manually-written letter at a time? In purple ink and on rainbow stationery even?
I got my first taste of activism at the young age of 12. At that time, there was a bitter injustice lurking in my world. Yes, bad television.
I feel like I need to preface this story for anyone under 30 who may be reading. This will completely blow your mind. I mean it! Drop your jaw right to the floor. As you sit here today with your 350 TV channels, try to grasp a time when cable television comprised of only five to six non-network stations. And one of which was smelly ol’ CNN. Can you even imagine! (And then I also remember no-cable, manual channel-surfing and antennas, but that would be too much to grasp in one day.)
Back in the 1980s, before Nickelodeon and outside of Saturday morning cartoons, the TBS channel was just about the only thing a kid could hang his hat on. (Do not bring up HBO. Or satellite. I’m serious, do not bring these up. You kids with HBO and/or satellite lived on a planet outside my solar system.)
Back in the day, my brother and I would often unwind with our Taco Flavored Doritos and 1960s sitcom reruns on the TBS channel. After-school just didn’t get any better than that. But all of a sudden, TBS tried to reinvent itself. Reruns are done! Who wants to watch reruns, anyway? TBS instead threw on some really amateur self-created programming. These sitcoms would run in the afternoon and we had little choice but to watch them. (What? Books and exercise? I don’t know what you’re getting at here.)
Three of those sitcoms: 1.) Down to Earth, 2.) Safe at Home, and 3.) Rocky Road. For some reason, all three shows centered on kids whose mom and/or dad were either permanently checked-out or dead. Perhaps it was because a lot of us watching were latchkey kids. Certainly we could relate to the plight of orphans.
The most wretched of the three sitcoms was Rocky Road. Three orphans who were trying to run a beachfront ice cream store. (“Rocky Road” – do you get the double meaning? Brilliant.) Let’s just say, the acting was disgraceful. Then they threw in a bumbling comic relief character named “Lucas” played by Lewis Arquette (better known as the patriarch to the Arquette acting dynasty). Lucas always wore a Hawaiian shirt. Of course he did. And to top it off, they offered us a teenage sibling character to serve as the Kirk Cameron fill-in. He had brown curly hair, true. But, John Sachar, you were no Kirk Cameron.
I had to Google this show because I’ll admit the details are sketchy to me. Two things that caught me off guard: 1.) Heather O’Rourke (the little girl from Poltergeist) played the youngest orphaned sibling – an incredibly eerie discovery, given my traumatic experience with Poltergeist, and 2.) There is not a single online video clip or photo of Rocky Road to be found. And I’m sure TBS likes it that way. Are you kidding me, they don’t want us to remember Rocky Road ever existed! (And seriously, as for that, I will reward you with a large bag of Taco Flavored Doritos if you can prove otherwise. Please, find me a photo! I would love to be wrong on this.)
Get this – at the close of each show, the producers had the gall to leave us with information on how to join the Rocky Road Fan Club. Star Trek Fan Club – of course! Miami Vice Fan Club – sure! Charles in Charge Fan Club – okay, why not? Rocky Road Fan Club – what the hell are you smoking? I’m betting the producers brazenly assumed they had us at “Kirk Cameron knock-off.”
Tony and I were outraged that the TBS executives thought they could just throw any old crap on television and we kids would eat it up. Okay, they had a point there. But the fan club thing – that was just too much. So, upon the next promotion of the Rocky Road Fan Club, we did our duty for the betterment of society. We wrote a letter. Below I tried to piece together bits of that letter by cross-referencing with Tony’s memory. No doubt, lots of exclamation points were involved.
Dear Rocky Road Fan Club,
We are not writing because we are fans of your show!!!!! We are writing because we hate your show! Your acting is terrible!!!!!! Especially Lucas!! Also, Lucas is a grown-up so there is no way he would like that Sugar Pops cereal he’s always eating!!!!!!! (Tony remembers I insisted this be included in the letter because apparently the cereal is what really pushed it over the top for me.)
Something-something-something!!! We hope your show goes away!! Soon!!!!!
Two NOT fans
Now you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I swear it’s true. Nearly two months after we mailed the un-fan letter, following a solid two-year run, Rocky Road left the airwaves. Poof! Gone! So long, sucker! And the reason is clear. If you can’t fool two dumb kids in Podunk, Nebraska into thinking you are presenting a quality television program, who can you fool? And with that, we were able to get back to the top-notch, well acted after-school television programming we had come to enjoy. Man, that Gomer Pyle is such a character! It doesn’t get any better than this!
After seeing what one letter could do to change the world, I didn’t want to stop there. Yes, I knew there were more injustices and I needed to stand up for what was right.
In 7th grade, I decided I had arrived when I got my subscription to Seventeen Magazine. It was the late eighties and a new age hippie movement was starting up. How so? The teenage models in my magazine told me so. Yes, they were wearing wide, tie-dyed headbands and “Save the whales!” t-shirts. I wanted to be a part of that uprising. So from the back pages of Seventeen, I ordered myself a sterling silver dolphin necklace. When Earth Day rolled around, I would be ready.
But wait, now Seventeen was telling me I had to do something bigger than this if I wanted to really make a difference. Feeling that call to action, on Earth Day I decided to dream bigger than simply ridding the world of bad television. Yes, I’d take on egg cartons. I knew that a time existed when egg cartons were made of cardboard. And Seventeen taught me that Styrofoam was bad stuff. Bad, bad, bad. My-grandkids-might-not-ever-play-on-real-grass-turf type of bad. So I wrote the egg carton company demanding they switch to cardboard. Pretty gallant, huh?
Styrofoam is bad. I don’t know what all it does, but I’m pretty sure it kills people. And it probably kills dolphins too. You need to use cardboard because it is better. Today is Earth Day so I hope you will start using cardboard to put your eggs in. I appreciate you taking this matter seriously.
Angie Link, a consumer of eggs that come in a carton
About four weeks later, an envelope arrived from the Egg Carton People. A very thick manila envelope. I eagerly tore it open, thinking I may find a flattened cardboard egg carton inside – a test model they wanted to run past me before putting it into mass production. Instead, I found a 100+ page document written in Corporatese. Something about how Styrofoam is perfectly safe for consumers to ingest and will not cause harm to dolphins swimming in the ocean. I read through about five lines of the Executive Summary. Feeling satisfied (read: stupefied) by the Egg Carton People’s response, I quietly hid it away on the top shelf of my closet. Yes indeed – changing the world, one corporate white paper at a time. Suffice to say, the next Earth Day that rolled around, I opted to just wear my dolphin necklace.