Author Archive
general

Turtlenecks and surfer culture don’t mix.

MH is a third-generation Irish-American originally from Battle Creek, MI, who relocated to Santa Barbara, CA in high school.

MH had a tough adjustment period when he moved out West:

“My sophomore year our family left the Midwest and moved to Santa Barbara, and my brothers and I had to start a new high school in the middle of the year…I wasn’t bullied or anything, but there was a period where the other kids were a little confused by me, I think. I was on the basketball team, and one day at practice the balls kept rolling out the door and into the hallway, so my coach told me to go close them. These guys were standing in the doorway, this one guy, Rich Cooke, who was on the football team. I guess he knew who I was, because when I told them I needed to close the doors he yelled something at me like, ‘you think you’re so much better in your turtlenecks,’ something dumb like that to make fun of how I dressed. So I pushed him out into the hallway, beat him up, closed the door and walked back into the gym like nothing had happened. And I stopped wearing turtlenecks after that.”

My analysis:

This story shows how material things, like clothes or cars, can help facilitate folk culture for certain groups whether they like it or not. In MH’s case, his preppier wardrobe communicated a stuffiness or snobbish attitude to his new classmates in Southern California, who were wearing more boardshorts than club attire. Unfortunately for Rich Cooke, stereotyping and playing into those folk beliefs isn’t always an effective way to understand someone from another “culture.” And at a time when teenagers are very focused on their identity, he may have felt threatened by MH’s ability to integrate into the school’s culture (besides his clothes), even as an outsider.

Festival
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Nosebleed-nosebleed seats

JH is a high school senior living in Pasadena, CA.

JH told me about a major perk of living above a large concert venue:

“Generally living above the Rose Bowl can be a huge pain in the ass – New Years is a huge production, and there’s traffic every weekend during the college football season when UCLA has its home games here. They put barricades on all the side streets to keep people from parking, but they direct traffic down the main street in the neighborhood…but for the last few years they’ve gotten really big music people to play in the Rose Bowl, like Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Rihanna…but tickets are usually way over $100 if you want to see anything…luckily for kids my age, who really like the performers and the music, because the sound from the Rose Bowl carries all the way into the neighborhood. There’s this one street a couple blocks away with houses on one side and cliff-kind of thing on the other, that drops off straight into the Arroyo and where the Rose Bowl is…so if you go sit out there, you can hear the music almost perfectly. It’s usually warm enough in the summer that we can go out with chairs or blankets and stuff and just listen to a free concert. It’s not so great for the older people in the neighborhood that hate the music…they’re always complaining about like, being kept awake at night…I do feel kinda bad for them.”

My analysis:

The concerts here are probably a contentious issue in the neighborhood, with most residents probably being against the extra noise and traffic. But for younger kids who would actually want to attend the real event, the ritual is more about making the best of a bad situation. It shows the dichotomy between a generation who probably moved to the neighborhood never imagining these circumstances, and the generation that grew up in it appreciating these extra perks.

Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Kicking the lamppost on gameday

DK is a junior at the University of Southern California, and is originally from Denver, CO.

DK had some more USC folklore to share with me:

“Football season is a huge production at USC, and probably the most obvious time when the whole school gets together…on gamedays, everyone usually tailgates on campus, setting up tents and hanging out together hours before the game even starts. Once kickoff is approaching, everyone sort of migrates away from campus to cross Exposition and head to the Coliseum…if you go with everyone else through the south entrance of campus, there are these huge light posts at the exit, and for some reason everyone has to kick the base before they keep heading to the Coliseum. Honestly, I have no idea why people do it, and no one I talk to seems to know either. But there’s always backup once you get there, because everyone’s standing around this lamppost waiting to kick it.”

I asked DK what her best guess was as to the origin of the ritual:

“Maybe we’re kicking at our opponents? I don’t know how threatening that is.”

My analysis:

Sports rituals are very common for college and professional teams, and are probably even more prevalent during home games. The entire process of gathering together on campus to tailgate, then migrating together to head to the game, and stopping to perform this ritual without even knowing the meaning demonstrates the strength of USC pride and how it indoctrinates us best on days like gamedays. When school spirit is running high we’re more willing to participate in the most random of activities, because all of it is bringing us together.

general

Soda tab games

DK is a junior at the University of Southern California, originally from Denver, CO.

DK shared stories with me about folklore at her school in Denver:

“I remember the biggest thing in middle school was getting to drink soda at lunch. They sold cans in the cafeteria of like, Sprite and Coke, and sometimes Dr. Pepper, and we’d all get soda to drink at lunch. Once we were done, we’d all go in a circle and wiggle the tabs back and forth while going through the alphabet…when the soda tab fell off, whatever letter you landed on was the first initial of your crush. And then we’d all flip out trying to decide who everyone’s crush was.”

My analysis:

This ritual is found all over schools everywhere, with kids of all ages. At a time when they are changing the ways they socially interact with one another, in more romantic or sexual means, it’s a cute and interesting way of sharing those feelings with your friends. Other variations I’ve heard of include twisting an apple stem until it breaks, or reciting the alphabet while jump-roping. Most importantly this seems to be a group ritual – if you were drinking soda or eating an apple alone, you wouldn’t necessarily do this to see you your crush was.

general

Folk Object: Estate Furniture

MH is a third-generation Irish-American from Battle Creek, MI. He now splits his time between San Francisco, CA and Pasadena, CA, where he lives with his wife and 18-year-old son.

MH talked about the origin of some of his furniture, which has been passed down a couple generations:

“My mom grew up in a poor Irish family during the Great Depression, and they were a big family and she would go on to have a big family herself, which was pretty typical of Irish Catholics at the time…so during the Depression, they were always breaking up these huge estates that had gotten too expensive for families to maintain, and they’d have these estate sales where they’d sell really nice and valuable pieces of furniture, like beautiful wooden tables and dressers, really nice armchairs and Oriental rugs…and so my mom’s family bought a lot of this furniture for dirt cheap at these estate sales. Eventually she grew up and married my dad and the moved to Chicago when they first started having kids, but now they needed to buy larger houses, and they could afford to after the war. But instead of needing to buy new things, they were given some of the old furniture by my mom’s family, so the really nice pieces that originally came from estates went back into really nice houses that my parents had to buy to hold all my brothers and sisters. And now I have some of this pieces in my own living room, and the tables and things are so much better quality than what’s being sold today, because they were build to last for generations like this. So I’ll probably end up passing them on to my own kids, when they buy their own big estates!”

IMG_1924 IMG_1925

My analysis:

Many families pass down meaningful objects with stories or important family history behind them. While furniture isn’t necessarily what you’d imagine when you picture those sentimental moments, they can still be considered folk objects when you think about the cultural implications – the biggest story for MH is about his Irish-American heritage, and what it meant for his family in America during the Great Depression.  “Being Irish from a big family went from being a negative to a positive,” he told me, and today he and his siblings are proud of their roots.

Legends

US-Mexico Border urban legends

MR is a student at the University of Southern California, originally from Ames, IA.

MR shared a harrowing story that she’d heard from a friend in San Diego:

“My friend told me that in high school, there were kids who would sometimes cross the border into Tijuana to go out and party, and then they’d just post up on a hotel before driving back the next day…one year some kids went after finals and were out at a bar, and one of their girl friends was hanging out with a guy behind the bar. She told them she was going to stay and hang out with him, and that she’d call them when she was on her way back to their hotel…by morning no one had heard from her yet, and her phone calls would go straight to voicemail. They went back to the bar from last night and tried to show the owner a picture of the man that they’d taken last night, but the owner said he’d never seen him before. They drove around everywhere trying to find signs of their friend, but at some point they knew they had to get back to San Diego and would have to talk to the police then, after talking to the border patrol. So they started driving back and they were waiting in line to be search by border patrol, while they were talking to them also freaking out about their missing friend.

All of a sudden in another line they see something going on, and the cops are talking to this guy who has a sleeping girl wearing sunglasses in the passenger seat. The cops tell the guy he can’t cross the border unless he can wake the girl up, and he’s putting up a lot of resistance. Finally they take off the girl’s sunglasses and realize she’s dead – at the base of her spine there’s an incision, and her spine has been padded by bags of cocaine.”

My analysis:

While this story initially freaked me out, MR offered her reservations about the whole thing. It seems like there are a lot of these nightmarish stories about cartels using dead bodies to smuggle drugs over the border, but there are almost no records of such a crime actually taking place. MR thinks these stories are used near the Mexican border to scare kids like her friend from going across to get away with drinking or partying, or at least encourage them to be extra-vigilant. It also makes those in the drug business as monstrous, inhuman entities, maybe making it easier to discriminate against people like them (ie. Mexicans in general). Legends like this seem pretty common in border communities, but luckily it doesn’t sound like they’re true.

For more information on stories like this, see:

Mikkelson, David. “Drugs Smuggled In Dead Baby.” Snopes 23 Apr. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/drugs/deadbaby.asp
general

Washington DC Metro

MR is a student at the University of Southern California, originally from Ames, IA.

MR was full of terrifying stories for me:

“One of my friends who goes to school at [George Washington University] was riding the last train of the night back from her office one day, and it was just her and one other guy at the stop, and they both got on the same car and sat a few seats away from one another. She said he was wearing business clothes and carrying a briefcase. The only other people on the car were two boys and one girl, the girl sandwiched between them in one seat…and as soon as she sat down, she realized the girl was staring at her. My friend was supposed to be on the train for like, 20 minutes, and every time she looked up the girl was still staring at her. The guys were just listening to music, but this girl wasn’t blinking, wasn’t turning her head, just full-on staring down my friend. She was starting to get really uncomfortable and thinking about changing seats, when the guy who was waiting at the original stop with her all of a sudden came over and sat next to her. Now she was really freaked out, but he just whispered to her ‘You need to get off at the next stop with me.’ She wasn’t sure who to be more freaked out by, but she decided to trust this guy and followed him off the train at the next stop. When they got off, she asked him why they needed to get out there, and the guy just said ‘that girl was dead.’ She tried to ask him how he knew but he didn’t have very many answers to give her, so she ended up just catching a cab ride home.”

My analysis:

This story is pretty vague, but definitely horrifying. While I couldn’t find any other instances of DC metro folklore, this piece seems to highlight a general fear and distrust in metropolitan public transportation, especially late at night. There’s the same kind of sentiments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where a lot of people feel unsafe using subways and light rail after dark, afraid of being in situations like this: alone in a car with sketchier passengers. In part it might be a class thing, where people see public transportation being used by the homeless and working-class who could potentially harass them with less of their peers around. Urban legends in big cities a lot of times play on people’s apprehension about other groups, either political, social or economic.

Adulthood
Initiations

Kairos

JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives in Pasadena, CA.

JH talked to me about a school retreat he just went on, which they host every year:

“We have a different retreat every year, but the senior retreat is called ‘Kairos’…we spend like the last week of classes at a center near Santa Barbara, but they don’t really tell us where we’re going…we just left after school one day. It’s pretty religious-based and we talked a lot about God and the Catholic Church and stuff, but more of it was spiritual, like we talked about our personal relationship with God and spirituality and stuff. On the second day they surprised us with letters from our parents, and both of our parents had to write us a letter with stuff they may not have told us or with like, things they wanted us to know…some people got letters from siblings too, and they mostly talked about how we’re at an important transition in our lives, talking about becoming an adult and stuff. And then we all had to share a lot too, and people talked about really awful things that had happened in their past that we had no idea about, and our teachers and the priests did too…I think we all got a lot closer, opening up like that…I wasn’t expecting to really buy into the whole retreat thing, but I think I learned a lot in the end. When we got back, they led us into the auditorium where all our parents were sitting, and they were cheering for us, and we went and sat up on stage where they talked a little about the week, and then we all had to go up to the microphone and talk about our experiences that week, and then we would go and sit with our parents.”

I asked JH if he felt it was more of a religious retreat or a school/class retreat:

“Definitely more about our class than religion. The religion was a big part of it, but even just going to a Catholic school they were never necessarily trying to convert us or anything, and they were really inclusive both at the retreat and at the school like in general.”

My analysis:

A lot of high schools that have the resources put on these “retreats” for their students, especially at the end of senior year, or the end of their high school career. It helps usher these students through the liminal period, or help them slow down and understand the importance of the transition they’re in the midst of, and by emphasizing parental involvement JH’s school highlights the community aspect, where families would play a big role in celebrating the child’s transition to adulthood. This is actually the first kind of retreat I’d heard of that gave parents such a role – usually it revolves more around the school’s influence and presence in the students’ lives.

Foodways
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Kellogg’s Cereal

MH is a third-generation Irish-American, originally from Battle Creek, MI. He splits his time today between San Francisco, CA and Pasadena CA, where his wife and 18-year-old son live.

MH talked about a ritual his family performed:

“My father was the head of New Product Development at the Kellogg’s corporation, which is why we were living in Battle Creek. He oversaw the development of cereals like…Sugar Smacks, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks and Rice Krispies…those were all his projects. We used to get to test new cereals, and they would come home in these white boxes so we wouldn’t be influenced by any packaging. He eventually became president of their International Division, so he had to travel a lot. At home of course we could only eat Kellogg’s cereal, but when he’d prepare to go out of town it was a ritual for us to decide what non-Kellogg’s cereal we were going to buy for while he was away. My mom usually tried to limit us to Cheerios, but my favorites were like, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I think my dad knew but he never talked to us about it…”

My analysis:

Family rituals that involve secrecy from a parent are common, and they usually seem to be invented to help the other parent bond with their kids. In this case, MH (who has 9 other siblings) thinks it brought his brothers and sisters together. With so many of them, meals weren’t necessarily a family event, but when they all got together to pick their contraband breakfast cereals, they spent some rare time as a whole group. MH says he and his siblings all buy Kellogg’s cereal for their families, but would look the other way if their spouses decided to give their kids something from General Mills.

Adulthood
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Forget it, it’s Chinatown

JH is a senior at a all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.

JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.

“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.

“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”

I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:

“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”

My analysis:

I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.

Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.

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