Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm pretty sure those were plums, or, the echo of your own broken voice.

Among the multitudes of my readership there are bound to be a few of you that remember a certain Sunny Delight commercial from, maybe, ten or eleven years ago. For kids like myself who watched inordinate amounts of TV everyday after school this particular commercial always struck a cord. For one reason they showed the damn thing about 100 times an hour, but back then that was some kind of market stratagem: thorough saturation, so looking back there were a lot of commercials that I saw way too many times. What makes this particular commercial so important is that I think it rent my generation into two very salient schools of thought. There were two very distinct ways to receive this commercial, and since we had all seen it, in all probability, millions of times, it was inevitable that one day we would begin to discuss it.
The gist of this particular Sunny “D” spot was not too different from many other commercials. It opens with two thirsty kids rooting around in a refrigerator. The point of view is from inside the ’fridge so the viewer is looking out at these sweaty brats from behind pickle jars, open boxes of baking soda and general refrigerator effluvia. One of these kids seems to feel at home in this particular ’fridge, as he is listing off the present supply of drinkables therein for the other kid. As he does so the rooting continues and new bottles are continually brought into view. I don’t remember everything he mentions, I’m sure some kind of generic cola was in there, I don’t think Proctor and Gamble would have the balls to include water, as, keep in mind, the kids eventually choose Sunny “D” over all other options. Also, I’m sure the dairy council’s Gestapo would’ve been torching offices if milk was included so, to soothe the myriad corporate egos of the day Sunny “D” essentially just made up a bunch of drinks. Oh sure, they had a cola, but again, I’m pretty sure they just said “soda” as the kids shoved a brown bottle with a red label aside, maybe with the whole cola wars thing going on Sunny “D“ thought they‘d step in to the ring and sock a punch as long as the contenders were busy blasting each other. Anyway, I’m getting way off track here. The main point I wish to harp on here was that one of the made up beverages was dubbed “Purple Stuff,” and it was this enigmatic liquid that split the generation that followed Generation X right down the middle (possibly even some of the Gen Xers as well, shit knows THEY watched enough TV too.)
So there we all were, day after day, cartoon after cartoon. Watching these incredibly eager and ruffled kids sliding drinks around in a refrigerator. After a period of time, many of us began to wonder, “hey, wait, what IS that purple stuff?” I know that for me it was after the first viewing, others eventually came to the “Purple Stuff” way of thinking after finally trying Sunny “D” for the first time and assuming that there’s no way the “Purple Stuff” coulda’ been worse. Others didn’t even need to try the “D” (that’s right, Sunny Delight and Detroit now share the same nickname as far as I’m concerned,) they knew from the beginning that the “Purple Stuff” didn’t really exist, and that was enough to make it the most enticing drink by far. Rumors abounded about the supposed flavor of this wild purple concoction. Some named fruits they had never tasted, but had seen in upscale grocery stores, others made up incredible and multifarious mixes of existing flavors, while still others invented completely new flavors, all of which I have unfortunately forgotten now. Of course there was the school that claimed the “Purple Stuff” was grape flavored, but they were only a sort of fifth column from the Sunny “D” lovers faction. They were the ones who were incapable of dreaming up wondrous possibilities for the “Purple Stuff” and they clung, stubbornly to old traditions and hackneyed flavors.

“If the stuff was supposed to be grape why didn’t Proctor and Gamble just say ‘Grape Stuff?’”

The advertising goons who came up with this commercial underestimated the creativity of their audience. They apparently figured, as a bunch of mindless consumers, tainted by years of myriad entertainment options and brand name identity associations that we would all buy into the idea that the unknown was inferior to the well-established, tried and true product. Of course they forgot one very important detail, Sunny “D” tastes like barf. So naturally when kids saw the glee on these gangly adolescents faces they knew they were being duped. No one likes Sunny “D” that much, and by contrast the mystery of the “Purple Stuff” became that much more exciting. This Phenomena would later be repeated with the Sprite commercials that invented a rival in something called Jukie or Juky, which again we all lusted after, having long since developed an antipathy for the absolute tastelessness of Sprite.
After a significant period of time had passed and the Sunny “D” commercial was still being played I remember trying to examine the “Purple Stuff” more closely. It was sorta’ opaque, and had a multi-toned quality to it, like some wines do. The packaging was fairly innocuous, as, I think the line of thinking was that we would not want something that came in a lackluster package. On the contrary, this seemed to attest to the indisputable value of the product itself. “Purple Stuff” didn’t need a flashy package or even a flashy name. It was fine promoting itself as some half drunk bottle inside Billy’s ’fridge. It didn’t even mind being spurned by two snot-nosed brats in favor of some other uncertainly flavored sludge. “Purple Stuff” eventually came to represent, not the freedom of choice that capitalism so badly wanted us to accept, but rather freedom to not care at all, or better yet, freedom to make or imagine your own after-soccer-practice cooler. In the manufacturing of a fake drink the corporate world demonstrated just how easy it was to turn anything into a product. We fast began to realize that the quest for the enigmatic “Purple Stuff” was revolutionary because it brought us into our own minds. We didn’t turn to the grocery stores looking for “Purple Stuff” on the shelves because we knew it was too singular to be there. “Purple Stuff” became a way of life, sorta’. Those of us who took to “Purple Stuff” over Sunny “D” dreamt of what was unavailable anywhere outside our own hearts. “Purple Stuff” was in every individual that had bothered to think about what “Purple Stuff” might be, or how it might be made, or what it might taste like.
So quite unwittingly, the corporate world let slip the secret that individuality does not lie between the selection of product A or B. A and B cease to matter when you become capable of imagining XRQ17. From that point on I knew that A and B contests would never be worthwhile again.
*[Originally, I brought in a bunch of political points here, but after reading what I wrote I realized there is nothing political about this, the concept of “Purple Stuff” stems far deeper than the realms of what candidates have to offer and I’m not trying to make a political point here. I only wish to give voice to what I remember as the zeitgeist of the mid-nineties playgrounds and living rooms of America.]
It took ten years or so but I finally got to try “Purple Stuff” I know you’re probably thinking it’s antithetical for me to even attempt to define the great purple nectar at this point, but, again I think the beauty of the “Purple Stuff” mythos was that it was always within our grasp. I think anyone of us was ready to taste it at anytime, we just had to be ready, had to believe that what we were imbibing was the actual “Purple Stuff” and not just something we were willing to accept as “Purple Stuff.”
I moved to Armenia a few months ago from the US, the village were I live is down in a valley in an area that resembles the American southwest. It’s in the mid to upper 80s or 90s here everyday. The valley itself is lush and green and bears some beautiful fruit in the summer. Outside the valley grapes can be cultivated but not much else will grow in the arid soil. The other day I was walking up into the mountains. I was thirsty as hell following a trail that was supposed to lead to a lake someplace. I never found that lake but on the way back I came across a tree that literally had fruit falling off from it. I didn’t know what the fruit was, let alone if it was edible but I decided to try one anyway. With the first bite I nearly lost my balance, completely enervated by deliciousness. I ate another, my head swooned, I rocked back on my heels. It was almost 100 damn degrees outside and somehow this stuff was cold! I ate a few more and eventually came to the decision that this fruit was really too good to keep eating. Like I didn’t want to satiate myself with something that was this good. I didn’t want to worry about getting sick from eating too much, so I left the tree behind with it’s miraculous fruit. It wasn’t until the next day that I made the comparison between the color of this fruit and a commercial from ten or eleven years ago.
Friends, I have found my “Purple Stuff,” let me know when you find yours.

Wow! I really don’t know how to begin to convey the excitement and gratitude I’m feeling right now. I guess the best way would be to begin with a feeling of disappointment, ya’ know to sorta’ offset the happiness.
The disappointment came as a result of a bum cell phone. I didn’t really even want a cell phone and told myself from the beginning of my Armenian odyssey that I wasn’t going to get one. I mean I assumed in a country like this cell phones would be expensive as hell and probably wouldn’t work very well. It only took me about a day or so to realize how wrong my presumption had been. We arrived in Yerevan early in the evening, jet-lagged and haggard we gradually made our way out of the airport to encounter a parking lot full of people talking on cell phones, “Whoa,” I thought. “developing country my ass.” Anyway, I guess it’s the norm these days, no matter where you are you can get cell phones and reception to boot.
As the weeks of Peace Corps training progressed everyone began buying phones and calling home, calling each other, calling the Armenian operator, just randomly mashing keys until someone began to talk on the other line etc. etc. The point is calls where being made. I took no part and held up my stalwart commitment to not buy a phone. After all, it worked so well for years in college. My resistance was eventually worn down when I heard that a phone was to be given away along with the piles of other junk departing volunteers were leaving behind. We had this monopoly money doled out to us to buy this stuff and somehow I decided the phone was probably the best thing to get, although earlier tonight I was thinking maybe I shoulda’ gone with the udon noodles and soy sauce.
Anyway, I had the winning bid and I took this crazy phone home after buying a sim card for it so that it would actually work and not just beep at me when I tired to turn it on. I tried it out a few times. Everyone calling me and me calling them to exchange numbers without actually having to type anything into the phone. Well, it felt good at first to connect with everyone and when I got back home I decided to be considerate and call my mother, as the country to the north of us (about 4 hours by car) just went to war and she tends to worry. I found myself a good spot, got a cigarette going and made the first call on my new phone. My dad answers sounding kinda’ mad. “Hello?”
“Heya, dad how’re ya’ do…”
“Hello!?” He sounds madder.
“Hey dad, what’s…”
“HELLO?” It becomes clear at this point that he can’t hear me. I try a few more times before he hangs up.
“Hmm” I think to myself. “Must be a bad connection or something. Seems odd though as I’ve got all five bars indicated here. Whatever, I’ll try somebody else.” And the same process repeats.
“Maybe it’s only America, I’ll try someone here in Armenia.” Again I go through the agonizing process of being able to hear someone answer the phone but not being able to respond. There’s something oddly Sartre-esque about that, like the inverse of being-in-doing. You act but only get a isolated reaction, the other party has no idea who they’re talking to. You’ve committed the action of calling but they’re the ones who end up alone, speaking into a dead line.
I can’t help but to be kinda’ bummed at this point. I had gotten pretty excited about making a few calls. Hearing some familiar voices and familiar stories, but no I was back under an increasingly turgid American evening sky, the wind blowing over the chaparral, sounding like the voice of loneliness. And then I started thinking that they must’ve given me a bum phone on purpose, how could they have not known the damn receiver didn’t work? And now at the end of training there was nothing I could do to try and give it back. Fuming thusly I went over to my pal Jay’s to tinker with it while I tried calling his phone. As usual Jay was very obliging and I screwed around with my phone getting madder and madder while he tried to console me, probably thinking that I was being too dramatic as usual. I finally gave up on the damn thing and went home to tell my host mother that the number I gave her did not work, and that she should delete it from her phone. Being the angel that she is she asked if I would mind if she called a friend who fixed phones. Huh? What kinda’ luck is this? “Ok, sure,” I said. Yeah why not. Maybe he can even fix it. So while she made the call I was thinking this guy must live in one of the cities nearby, he certainly doesn’t live here in the village. When she hung up she told me that this guy lived next door and was coming over. Huh, ok, wow that’s pretty cool. Still, I was convinced my phone was a hopeless cause and didn’t get too excited.
About five minutes later this guy comes walking across the valley near our house. We greet each other, and quite business-like, he takes a look at my phone, pressing all the buttons I had already tired. I began to feel bad for even calling this guy over thinking, “damn, he’s just going to do all the stuff I already tried, if only my Armenia was better I could explain to him that it’s a lost cause, maybe we could chuck the phone into the garbage ravine together and have a good laugh about the benefits of technology while the cows low as they saunter home for the evening. But this was not to be the case, the guy used his phone to call mine, listened on his phone and blew into mine. “Here it comes,” I thought. He going to realize this is some sort of mechanical problem and give up. Instead he tells my host mother the Sony needs a new microphone, he’s going to take it back to his place and fix it. “Huh?” I’m thinking, “this guy has cell phone microphones in his house?” I’m telling you everything about this process kept getting better, it was like being on some sort of succor elevator.
The guy’s back in a few minutes. My phone works, here it is, try it. I do, it does, and I’m happy. We all sit down and eat watermelon and drink coffee and he tells me how he’s unemployed because there’s no work in this country. This guy fixed my busted phone in a village where there’s more cows than people, and I think the sheep might even have their own political party, now there are places like that in America too, but damn! How many of them are going to have cell phone microphones?
“No, I’d reckon you’d have to go to down to Boise for summut like that.”
“Huh?, Cell phone, ain’t nobody got no microphone and a cell phone, which one you want? Misself I only got that ol’ beta player for sale, I guess I could let it go for, oh maybe 100 dollars. What? Oh yeah, it’s got a microphone to it, sure!”
The whole scenario was like some kind of soft mafia, phone’s broke, huh? Lemme’ call my friend. Hey I hear your phone’s busted oh, give me a second, here ya’ go., it’s fixed. No, of course you can’t pay me, whatta’ ya’ nuts? And to think I was all set to pitch it in the garbage ravine, only now that I’ve got a working phone I can’t get a hold of anybody. Oh a quick note about the garbage ravine, it’s exactly what it sounds like, if you can imagine a hot summer rainbow of stench, you’re on the right track to picturing, or rather, smelling what I’m talking about. Seriously, I didn’t know that steel could become putrescent until I made the mistake of looking down there one day, whew! I’ll have to tell you more about it someday, oh hey you could always call me we could talk about stink all day!