Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time flies when you're not really changing at all.

Just a heads up: this post might embody the "meandering" part of the subhead of my blog (which to my Facebook friends is available here - it's always bugged me that Facebook links to the note within its own confines, but not to the actual blog), than the "rants" portion.
I've spent the last couple days going through the magazine museum in my living room. As mentioned in my previous post, Lisa has a bunch of 1970s Better Homes and Gardens that she just got, and she also has a few issues from much longer ago in her stockpile. In addition she has received through some consumer website or another a free subscription to BHG this past spring. So I got to thinking, and just sat all afternoon going through the October 1949 issue, then flashing forward 25 years to October 1974, then another 35 year jump to the October 2009 one that just came this week. I have to say it's been fascinating.
First of all, let's review the context in which each of these issues came out:
1949 - We had just recently emerged from a victorious and clear-cut, good v. evil struggle in Europe and the Pacific that had lifted us out of the depression, and with Truman in the white house we were rushing headlong into the post-war prosperity the 1950s would become so known for. NATO had been formed and formalized in the spring of that year, and the seeds of the cold war had been sown, swinging the pendulum from the social state of the new deal to the red scare that would soon follow.
1974 - We were in the process of dialing down a long divisive war fought for dubious reasons in Southeast Asia. Nixon had just resigned for something decidedly unbecoming of his office, and the future of civility and order in our nation itself seemed to be at stake. No one seemed to want to deal with life here in the U.S. Pendulum: somewhere between authoritarian eavesdropping state and libertarian uprising against a tyrannical federal power.
2009 - We are currently fighting a war which I will not politicize here (if you've read any of my previous posts you can probably guess where I come down on it anyway). In addition, the pendulum is in virtual fibrillation, we're in the middle of an economic hemorrhage unlike anything anyone under seventy years old can remember, and we're being told the way to pull out of it is spending. On anything whatsoever.
With that in mind, the most striking difference is the ads in these magazines. In 1949 the majority of the ads were for home improvement items - washers (and a lovely article on how to save time using an automatic washer), vacuums, water heaters, etc. The magazine itself was more geared toward both making a home, but also building and maintaining it. The ads and articles contained just as many men as women. In 1974, the ads were mainly for life improvement items - travel packages to Hawaii and the like (this was two years after the Brady Bunch discovered their cursed Tiki there, so I'm sure the Pacific Islands were all the rage, vacation-wise), but also liberally peppered with pet foods and detergents. This year, what the overwhelming majority of advertisements in BHG are about is self improvement items - they're selling cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, clothing, pharmaceuticals, and sleep aids & mattresses (and the overwhelming majority of people in these ads are female). With all the time savers of 1949, all the vacation packages of 1974, and all the drugs and makeup of 2009, would anyone care to venture a guess as to which generation is sleeping better at night?
Also worth noting is the gender targeting of the different incarnations of the magazine. In both 1949 and 1974 the issues were geared toward both women and men, whereas in 2009 the demographers have clearly decided for us that it is the woman in the family who is in charge of the daily comings, goings, and upkeep of the house - even though now it's more common than in the previous years that she works outside the home as well. Indeed, the article in the 1949 issue titled "How-To for the Handy Man" or the ones detailing how to get better mileage out of a car or create 3 styles of bookshelves "designed for men" would look out of place next to the CoverGirl spreads and Curel ads in today's edition. But perhaps that is more a function of magazines having to cater to more highly specified audiences and fewer of them being aimed at the entire household unit.
To be sure, the older issues definitely had a gender skew as far as roles within the household were concerned, but I almost think it is less offensive than today's demographic skewing. Yes, in 1949, and even 1974, it editorially assumed the father was concerned with the structural and mechanical workings of the household, while the mother (yes, always one father and one mother) was more concerned with the nurturing and aesthetic aspects, but at least it was honest about that. In 2009 however, it does not even pretend to care what a man does in the home, and as such it has all but abandoned the building and maintenance in favor of design and furnishing (showing, perhaps, that it cares a great deal what a woman does in the home).
In the aforementioned "How-To" article in 1949 they had three pages of illustrations with little captions telling one how to coat one's own nails, prevent rust on tools, evenly sand a curved surface, etc. In 2009 they had an article with really intriguing photos about how a couple remodeled their old outdated basement into a finished family room area. It did not, however, say how they did it. It was half a page of text talking about aesthetics, the apex of which was mentioning that darker colors help the giant plasma T.V. blend with the room. The feeling I got from it was along the lines of "you're female and home all day, so here's what you should buy," even though it never has to come out and say it (though I must admit I am charmed that in every one of these issues they have recipes for Halloween cookies, and that they all still have a recipe contest as well, even if today's prizes are considerably larger).
Overall though, the greater editorial arc of Better Homes and Gardens has been one away from actually making a home and toward filling one. "Here are the techniques you can use to be domestically competent" has skewed to "Here are the things you should buy to make your home comfortable." Perhaps that's a product of us collectively trading in "Building Things" for "Expensive Numbers on Paper Being Pushed Back and Forth," or perhaps it is just laziness on our part ("if someone else will put a window in for me, I'll have time to pick out expensive drapes."), but it makes me want to finally finish my basement with some nice built-in "Man's" bookshelves - just as a tribute to those ridiculous but competent people who made homes before me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Flags of our Fathers

Lisa, in cleaning out her great grandmother's house, has come across something fun - Better Homes and Gardens from the early 1970s. I know, I'm a history nerd, and this alone would be enough for me. But on the last page of each of them there's a feature called "The Man Next Door." It appears to just be pithy little one-liners and observations of this Burton Hillis fellow. It actually reminds me a lot of a Twitter feed in some ways. But in one issue I noticed he had a slightly longer entry, and I feel I need to reprint it in its entirety and discuss. He writes in the May 1971 issue:

"When I received my bank statement in the mail last week, I noticed that an American flag decal was included in the envelope. An attached note explained it was a gift, given in the hope I'd put it on my car window. At first I was pleased.
"Later, I began wondering if it was really the great idea it seemed to be at first. Showing off the colors on special occasions is something our family has always enjoyed. Yet having the Stars and Stripes constantly displayed on my car seemed somehow out of step with our family's attitude toward the flag.
"And what about the people who didn't have a flag decal? Might I risk implying, however unintentionally, that they were somehow less patriotic than I? I decided against the decal, feeling it was more a sign of current political ferment than an expression of genuine patriotism.
"Then too, it seemed Old Glory deserved something better than being dumped in the same class with billboards and bumper stickers, many of them bearing vaguely ominous messages like 'America, love it or leave it.' Used like this - or as a shirt on a bearded youth - the flag becomes a political football rather than a symbol.
"My family agreed. To us, pride in our country can't be synthesized into a decal. Patriotism, like all ideals, must be something we feel within ourselves."

I wonder what all the people with red, white, and blue ribbons on their trunks would think of this. It appears Mr. Hillis' "Billboard and Bumpersticker" people have won this debate, but I like his reasoning. I've always thought the flag doesn't belong along side "My other car is a _____" or even "God is my copilot." In fact, I have a feeling that a good portion of people who wear Old Glory on a T-Shirt or sport a dirty, salty, and torn flag on a bumper sticker are the same people who support anti flag desecration amendments whenever they come up, but I'm not convinced that many of them are familiar with U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1 (U.S. Flag Code), which Cornell Law School has presented very simply and well here. Sections 3 and 7 are especially relevant to the display of the flag. Also, Title 36, Chapter 10 deals with civilian use of the flag as well. Section 176, Respect For The Flag, has some interesting things to say about the Stars and Stripes on clothing, as clothing, as drapery, as napkins, etc. Did you know that politicians wearing lapel pins are arguably breaking the U.S. Flag code?
Much of the ramblings of Mr. Burton Hillis are dated humor and somewhat sexist anecdotes, but I can't help wishing that the country had heeded his advice on flag display. The flags of our fathers would appear to have been flags of discretion, and I can only imagine the pride that would fill my chest if I saw the flag in his patriotic light instead of with the political implications I see it now. Just something to think about, I guess.
More on the old Better Homes and Gardens in the next post - so if you're not a history nerd like me feel free to tune me out for a bit.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All's Fair at the Fair...

Alright, I spent the day at the Minnesota State Fair Saturday. I love that once a year I have to physically prepare myself for a fair. More on that in my review of it here. We hit the Creative Activities building to check out Lisa's award-winning strawberry jelly, we saw the state's biggest boar (testicles the size of my head, no lie), we took a tour of some of the campers that make me celebrate humankind's ability to cram the necessities of life into no more than one hundred square feet, and we also celebrated Michelle Bachmann's craziness immortalized in three, count 'em, three separate seed-art pieces (see below for one of them).

There were the butter heads of Princess Kay of the Milky Way, there were the curds (of course), and there was heritage square. Heritage square is this little area between the Midway and the Grandstand that is a celebration of State Fair history, and Carnival culture in Minnesota. I love the fair because every year I get more disillusioned with public life, but every year there is a place where I can go and be one hundred percent public for a day and no one judges me for it. It is a real, geographical place that we all (200,000 of us) converge on to be swept through the streets by the crowd and be offered so many options of how to spend our precious fair hours, show off our wares, or interact with our elected officials. Or one could watch a parade of costumed llamas, or win a giant stuffed banana, or get scared out of one's wits at the haunted house.

We got to see the Rockabilly show from Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics at one of the free stages (see right), and then we got to wander the midway after dark and take in the lights, the sweat, the carny raconteurs, the fried dough smell, and the awkward teenagers trying to impress one another.

Here's why fairs like this are still relevant in the twenty-first century: They are the last remaining vestige of original festival Americana. They are the only place one can still see the Family Farm in all its glory. They are one of the rare spots where all the pretense is thrown out the window and buyers aren't afraid to haggle and hawkers aren't modest. They are one of the only places left where everybody in the community comes together with all our diverse interests and ideas and we just exist together, and if we don't like someone we meet, to hell with it, we'll spend some time chatting anyway - we're at the Fair after all. It's the only place I've ever bummed a smoke from a guy and spent the next twenty minutes talking (as a city boy) to him about crop yield. It's the only place I've ever had a political debate with someone I don't agree with not devolve into either a shouting match or quiet resentment (because at least we could agree on the cheese curds, maybe).

I know the festival of the harvest goes all the way back to pagan times, but there's just something so quintessentially American about it in my mind - maybe instilled by the Pilgrim Thanksgiving stories from my elementary school days, but I think it's more than that. As I said in my review on Yelp (not to plug that again), it is a bacchanal of proportions that match our wide horizons. As Midwesterners, we in Minnesota are part of one of the largest and most productive agricultural regions on the planet, and as such whether one lives in the city or the country or a small town one has a basic connection to the land and its offerings that makes us respect the end of summer and the onset of autumn. That is why State Fairs are still relevant in our culture, and I am thankful to my state for putting on the best damn one there is (see below).