Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ben Cooper and Collegeville: The Retro Halloween Costumes of Gen X

Staring at the illustrations on the costume box and admiring the mask through the clear cellophane just before I pulled out what I would wear for Halloween was a ritual that I remember with so much happiness. These memories come from the late 1970s and very early 1980s, yet I can still feel the fiber of the thin cardboard box against my small hands and I can still smell the vinyl as I would first pull the costume out of the box.  

And the Magic-Glo - there was nothing like the soft green glow coming from kid's costumes as the smell of caramel, chocolate, licorice, Blow Pops, and pop culture would come wafting from the plastic pumpkin shaped buckets or the super hero pillow cases little Gen Xers would use to hold their candy.  

At the time I never noticed the Ben Cooper brand on these costumes, though now that name is the perfect search term for looking up pictures of Gen Xers in Halloween costumes through the years as we grew up.  Considering how easily these types of costumes would fall apart if you tried to wear them more than just on Halloween night, I guess this company saw a market for "sturdy" costumes you could wear over and over, like when you just can't wait for Halloween, and maybe even when it's already Thanksgiving.  I have a vague memory of seeing this cardboard box in a fellow Gen Xer's toy box when I was very small:

Collegeville was the other main competing company to Ben Cooper at the time.  This is another good search term for looking up pictures of Gen Xers dressed as all the cartoon characters we used to watch.

My favorite Ben Cooper costume that I wore was Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Apparently both Ben Cooper and Collegeville had the commercial rights to Casper...here's what was going on behind the scenes for retailers who were thinking of selling the costumes in their stores that we bought and took home as little kids: 

Happy Halloween, Generation X.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

River Phoenix - I Don't Want to Stand Where He Died

It's hard to choose just one person as a the symbol or voice of a generation.  For Generation X, many say it was Kurt Cobain, many others say it was River Phoenix.  Strangely, Kurt and River died within just five months of each other.  Gen Xers barely had time to grieve River when we heard the news of Kurt.  I distinctly remember walking between classes in high school, the weight of the books in my backpack heavy on my shoulders, staring up at a pale blue sky and thinking how unreal it was that they were both gone.  River was 23 when he took his last breath.

We were in town a week ago for my husband's 20th high school reunion, sitting in the driveway of his parents' house in a suburb of L.A., he was ready to drive our rental car to Sunset Boulevard where we had planned for a long time to go where River Phoenix experienced his last day in 1993.  As we set up the GPS with the address for the Viper Room, I realized I didn't want to make that journey.  I realized that I don't want to be near the place on the sidewalk where River passed away, at least not for now.  So instead, the next day, I decided to scramble for a window seat on the plane going back home and to think of River on the journey.   Instead of Sunset Boulevard, it was the Pacific Ocean, and lapping beaches, and sandy mountains covered in Redwoods.   So much of River's history took place from Southern to Northern California, it made sense to remember him this way.

People say there was something about him, that there was this bright spark in his soul.  He had this extra large portion of kindness and gentleness that radiated from him.  This is how I picture him leaving this earth: ascending quickly from the crowded shores of L.A. and then more slowly over open blue waters looking down at a thousand circling fish, watching the L.A. haze diffuse into the peaceful fog that hangs over the Pacific, and then realizing for the first time, he was utterly free of everything.

River was, by all accounts, Generation X.  He was born in 1970, right in the middle of the first wave and the second wave of X. The first time I ever saw him was on VHS in my 4th grade classroom.  Our teacher had us watch Stand By Me. It seems strange now -- 4th graders watching an R-rated movie in our classroom, a script full of so many heavy subjects, but we were a generation that grew up fast.

I mentioned River at my husband's reunion while catching up with people at Roxanne's - an Old Hollywood style bar in Long Beach. People would have to pause to remember who he was for a moment, or they would mention that no one talks about River Phoenix much anymore.

Whether we are still alive, or whether we have gone to the other side, whether we find ourselves at our high school reunions or are sending a message online to an old best friend that we grew up with, we don't want to be forgotten. 

As our flight came near its end, I looked down on the mountains of Northern California.  I felt a world away from Southern California, and a lifetime away from that day in 1993 when we lost River.

As the decades go by, I hope that he is never forgotten, I hope the bright spark within him is always remembered.  He was an animal rights, political, and environmental activist.  I imagine that his hope was (and is) that the things he was passionate about are never forgotten.

As I was getting ready for the trip, I read Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards. Going through these pages made it clear there was a lot of suffering in River's life.  It sounds like, as he grew older, he took movie roles mainly just to pay the bills to take care of his family, that he wanted out of the business, that he wanted to pursue music instead.  Edwards shows how River left a mark on pop culture and on Hollywood, I'll add that he left an enormous mark on Generation X.  Even if Xers have to pause a moment to remember him, they remember him.

Given that River had quintessentially Boomer parents, this led, as it often does, to a quintessential Gen X experience.  Sadly, the package that came with this Gen X experience for many was growing up far too fast, and sometimes, living far too fast, and dying far too young.

Sometimes, when I'm in LA, I look around at the way the palm trees lean silent in front of the sunsets, as cool evening breezes flow above the heat rising from the concrete, and think about the way Hollywood makes people, and then breaks them.  

As one of the Orthodox priests officiating at the funeral of my husband's family matriarch in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery last year said,

"Nothing is forever, 
especially not Hollywood."  

No doubt that's true about this world, that nothing is forever; it's something Gen X knew innately even before we watched R-rated movies as fourth graders, it's something we felt intensely the day we lost River.

(c) 2016 - all photos and writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our Stories

In addition to the writing I do on this blog, I have recently become a regular contributor over at Are You There God? It's me Generation X.  My first piece is about telling our story to overcome lies with truth both in our own lives and together as a generation.

Feeling very excited about what the future holds for all of us Gen Xers as we tell our stories more, and as more of us tell our stories....

Head on over to read the piece: 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The AIDS Generation, The Bravest Generation

I go to places that hold the untold stories of Generation X - especially the stories of our suffering.   I used to hesitate to use the word "pilgrimage" because this word implies a journey that is to a holy place.  Now I always use this word to describe all my Gen X journeys, especially memorial places, as I realize God is everywhere, especially in those spaces where we seek solace from the suffering we endure in our time on this earth, and especially when we do the holy work of remembering.   I had the chance to go to the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, and to do some photography here.

An initial walk through the grove with my family had me thinking about those we've lost from multiple generations.

A pause to look at the redwoods and then a walk back through by myself with my camera got me thinking about my own generation, Generation X, and how many we lost....

Down these steps there was a palpable sorrow. lingering especially above the soft green leaves of the plants to the left.

We cannot, and should not, forget those born in the earlier years of Gen X particularly who experienced HIV/AIDS in a time before there was any hope for medication that could help offer a relatively normal lifespan.

They called us "The AIDS Generation".  

1996 was the turning point year in the history of the AIDS Generation story - those diagnosed before '96 had a very high mortality rate, as research for treatment was only beginning.  During this key year inhibitor medications began to be available, even if only in their most elemental stages.  I remember this pandemic overshadowed my growing up years, and especially my high school years, with fear.  I graduated just before 1996 when hope began to unfold.

A lot of hope resides in the beauty that was created here, in the flowers reaching toward the sky.

Yet, in the open space below, waves of sorrow come drifting through among the soft winds from the Bay. If you walk here, walk with reverence, below your feet the sand holds many tears have that been shed.

Many First Wave Generation Xers lost a friend, or even a whole circle of friends during their coming of age years. 

Many of us Second Wave Xers remember Ryan White as the first person infected who was our own age. He became infected with AIDS from a blood transfusion.  It felt as if these little white flowers were trying to bend and lean toward each other to somehow spell out the letters of Ryan's name.  It is as if he is forever frozen in our minds as a young teenager, it is as if he became forever young.

Ryan and his family went through enormous ostracizing and persecution when he was diagnosed, and then he became a spokesperson for AIDS....

My family and I had no hatred for those people 
because we realized they were 
victims of their own ignorance.  
-Ryan White, Generation X (1971-1990) 

Dr. Perry Halkitis, a Gen Xer, wrote  The Aids Generation: Stories of Survival and Resiliance.
I've skimmed the book and hope to eventually read it in its entirety.  He writes, "In the last year of the plague alone, nearly as many young Americans died of AIDS as perished in the Vietnam War."  He calls us The Bravest Generation. 

It took many years for this memorial grove to come into existence, Isabel Wade and Nancy McNally envisioned it back in 1988, and a dedication took place on World AIDS Day in 2012:

As I left the park that afternoon and headed toward the stone staircase, the sun was hiding partly behind the clouds that and then finding a way to slowly, bravely, make its way from behind the grayness.  

While we have made progress, much progress still remains.  To read about how AIDS affects income development progress in low-income countries, a new, very effective, mother-to-child transmission immunization, and what we can do globally and individually to help, follow the link here: The One Campaign: HIV/AIDS

(c) 2016 - writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved.  
Feel free to comment below or to email me at genxpixels(at)gmail 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The 30th Anniversary of Hands Across America

It's the week of the 30th anniversary of Hands Across America  a historical event and a collective experience if there ever was one.

A couple of years ago, a relative from an older generation gave my daughter a small bag full of hand-me-down mementos from her jewelry box -- old buttons, little pieces of ribbon from gifts once given, lapel pins, and other trinkets.  When my daughter came home to show me her new treasures, my heart skipped a beat as a little pin reflected a sparkle of light and instantly conjured up memories from my Gen X childhood.   It was a Hands Across America pin.  Something that didn't mean much more than a spare button to the person who originally had it, and something that looked only like a symbol for a string of paper dolls to my daughter, but something that means a lot to me because of the history it is connected to.

Hands Across America, an event organized by Ken Kragen, raised millions of dollars that were distributed to charities across the country. To be a part of the chain, you were asked to submit $10, and the money was used to help Americans living in poverty.  Other than it just being a one-day event, the idea was to raise awareness of the effects of poverty in America in a broader and more long-term sense -- to help people think about how they could be continually involved by doing volunteer work or contributing  in other ways.  The chain went from New York City to Long Beach.  Of course there were breaks in the chain of people, and apparently in some places where the desert sun was too hot,they used stretches of ribbon to connect people to each other.  

Even though the 1980's were full of materialism and vanity, there were these events, these bright points, that became part of the history of that decade, like Live Aid, where people united themselves to help others on a large scale.   I think those big events that happened in the mid 1980's had a lot to do with who I became as a person.   As Gen Xers who were kids and teenagers at the time, these bright points not only were a part of what formed our collective consciousness, but also our collective conscience.  Celebrities of the time were a part of the Hands Across America promotional video and part of the chain itself.   In the video, we see young faces of people that are now much older and faces that we miss of those who have since passed away.  The event came right through my city at the time, Albuquerque, NM, and the celebrity who made a local appearance for the event was Don Johnson.  I didn't get to be a part of that day, but I do remember watching the Hands Across America promo video in the same classroom where I watched The Challenger Disaster earlier that same year. 1986 fell right in the middle of my formative years and holds a large number of my Gen X memories, including Chernobyl, and the beginning of the Iran-Contra affair.   It was a year that showed me that even though the world is full of much confusion, disappointment, and suffering, we are capable of great things when we come together for a cause larger than ourselves.   When 1986 began, we could not have known how much history was unfolding around us, or what an enormous role it would have in forming who many of us became as Generation X adults.  

(C) 2016 writing and photo by Chloe Koffas

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Psalms - Why What is Beautiful is What is Real

Fuller Seminary, a theological graduate school, recently launched Fuller Studio, a place to embrace a wider circle of voices from around the world.  This includes intercultural conversations on the Christian faith, along with women's issues in the leadership of the church, and interfaith dialogue.   Recently, Fuller Studio released a short film that includes conversation between Bono and Pastor Eugene Peterson about The Psalms from the Bible, and about The Message, a version of the Bible which Peterson translated from the original Hebrew and Greek into English in an idiomatic sense and in contemporary language - an extraordinary scholarly effort both of the mind and of the heart.  

An afternoon spent in a cozy lakeside cabin with a mug of hot coffee, in a discussion about  literature, art, and theology near a crackling fire with kindred souls, I can't imagine a place I'd rather be....

The Psalms are full of the rawness about the agony of life, the questions we have that can go unanswered for so long, and the deep sorrow, despair, and confusion we all experience.   The Psalms are beautiful because they are real.   Praying, in the way that the Psalms are prayed, isn't being nice before God, says Peterson, it's not pretty.  It's honesty, brutal honesty.   Bono said he would like to see more of this type of realism in life and in art and in music - write about a bad marriage you had, he says, write about why you are pissed off at the government....

U2 had an enormous impression on my spiritual life in my formative years growing up Generation X, and they still do.  I spent some Sundays of my childhood in church surrounded by Protestant hymns from the last two centuries; I spent some afternoons of my twenties listening Catholic Gregorian chant CDs, and now my Sunday mornings are likely to include Byzantine chant of the Orthodox liturgy, yet to be honest, nothing reaches my soul or connects me to God like the music of U2.  On that same wavelength, while I appreciate reading or hearing Scripture in any translation of the original text, I truly love experiencing it in my own context - in contemporary language that resonates with the relationship I have with the English language - including the metaphors I already understand.  This is a profound comfort to me, and because of Peterson's research and translation, we have this.  What U2 has done, and what Eugene Peterson has done for contextualizing Scripture into our modern lives, is very similar.  Many thanks to both of them for what they have done for Generation X.   As a quintessential Gen Xer, I can say that both of them have helped make my faith more beautiful, both of them have made my faith more real.

Bono often reads (or sings) from the Psalms during U2's concerts.  If you are interested in reading the Psalms that Bono refers to in the film as they are translated in Eugene Peterson's The Message you can download the first 40 of them for free here.


(c) 2016 -  writing by Chloe Koffas -
feel free to leave a comment, or to email me directly here: genxpixels@gmail

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fighting for X: The Legacy of Fred Rogers

Watching Mr. Rogers put on his cozy, brightly colored sweaters and change into his navy blue sneakers (that now look simultaneously retro and timeless) was a truly comforting ritual for me as a three year old playing with Lincoln Logs in front of the TV.

What I did not know as a Gen X tot of the late 1970's was this man was much more dimensional than the simple lessons he taught me, he was someone who actually fought for my generation.

I remember being a toddler and experiencing this new found fear of going down the bathtub drain - but not for long.  That same week, coincidentally, there was a Mr. Rogers episode where he talked about this very subject, and he reassured me that it was impossible and explained exactly why.  I distinctly remember how he would look at me from the screen with his compassionate eyes, like he was reaching out to me individually, reassuring me that everything would be okay.  And while our fears change as we get older, isn't that what we really want, to know that everything is going to be okay?

As a preschooler, I found the cadence to his voice peaceful and comforting - he spoke slowly enough for me to clearly understand him, unlike Walter Cronkite and news anchors I would see who spoke so fast about a world I couldn't understand, that I couldn't follow along at all.  In the 1970's, many of our living rooms had box shaped TVs that were actually colossal pieces of furniture, and since the screen was near to the floor, he would speak to me, on my level, in every sense.  

As time went on and I got past first grade, when flipping through the channels to find some cartoon, I would come across his show and I would see his preschool vernacular through the eyes of an older child - I wasn't sure why he spoke the way he did - it seemed a little too slow or even off-putting.  As an adult I can see that the way he spoke came from profound wisdom and love.  My first generation American Gen X husband watched Mr. Rogers as he was learning English as a second language and heading toward kindergarten in the early 1980's, and this is one piece of what helped him learn English so quickly.   Many immigrant parents probably found comfort in the slower pace of his voice - in understanding what he was saying as their kids were educated by his show.   Because of his deliberate, slower pace, children with different levels of hearing impairment could also watch his show and follow along much easier than on other shows.   He had a way of reaching out to kids from every socioeconomic background, culture, and situation.

You've probably seen the famous footage online of Fred Rogers addressing the U.S. Congress for much-needed funds for PBS. He gave this speech in 1969, when the first wave of Generation X was very young, and the second wave was about to be born.  While he is fighting for children's educational programming on public television, he was in fact fighting for Generation X.

There is something noble about fighting for people that are your own race or your own generation, and there is something even more noble about fighting for people that are of a different race or a different generation, because you have much less, or probably even nothing, to personally gain as a result.  Gen X grew up in a time when every area of society crumbled around us, where lies and hidden stories that surfaced about prominent leaders in our society caused us to become a cynical generation. Yet Mr. Rogers gave us a reason to have hope that there are truly good, sincere people in the world.

Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister.  In seminary, he narrowed down on his calling, not one of a traditional church pulpit ministry, but one that was profoundly creative - using the medium of TV to help people - specifically children.  When I look at the work of Mr. Rogers through a theological lens, this is how I see the set of his show: he would enter the show on a platform that reminds me of an elevated wooden pulpit, ones like you might see in certain traditional or formal churches, and then he would step down from it, to meet us where we were.  I feel that his brightly colored sweaters were his his simple vestments, and he would change them like a priest changes vestments for the liturgical seasons.  At the beginning of each show,  as he takes off his formal jacket to put on a casual sweater, as if to say that he might have been a man with a pastoral title and a divinity degree, but he was going to keep it simple and light so that we could let down our guard.  He never talked about God on the show because it was unnecessary - it was already clear that God was with him by the light that sparkled from his eyes, and that God was with us, especially when we learned that we were lovable for being our true selves.  Of all the times in life that people told me that they liked me (except they wished I would lose some weight) or that people told me they liked me a lot (but they wished I would wear nicer, designer clothes) or that they loved me (but I needed to change to who I was) it was vital to have a foundation in life that I could be "deep and simple, not shallow and complex".

There are more than enough of us Gen Xers who have been wounded by churches, who have been betrayed by people in church leadership, who have given up on church altogether, or who struggle to get ourselves to church regularly not only because society taught us to mistrust institutions as we grew up, but also because when we did somehow manage to get ourselves to church, people in power were abusive toward us.  And that is why was so important to us for there to be someone, even just one person, for us, who was alive in our lifetime who was a true beacon for God to us, who gave us substance, who had no dark back story or double life, who was genuine and respectable.  The more you read about Mr. Rogers, the more you see what he meant to our generation collectively and individually.

A private disagreement he was having with his wife was accidentally picked up by an audio recorder on the set of his show in 1981.  This was the year when the divorce rate in America was at its peak. This is what he said to his wife: "Sometimes when we disagree, I feel frustrated.  But I never forget how lucky I am to have you in my family.  Always remember how special you are."  He was also a father, and a grandfather.  He was from the Silent Generation, and his second son is Generation X.  Not only was he was a Presbyterian minister, he was many other things simultaneously - including an author, a composer, and an activist: 

"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you ever see or hear or touch.  That deep part of you that allows you stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive.  Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

Here is a link that includes more about his life story:

Weaving a Magnificent Life Tapestry

Photo by Jim Judkis

While I say that he fought for X - he was a fighter in the sense that he disarmed people with his truth and love.  He had a way of connecting with people, maybe because of his profound love for each person he met, maybe for the Imago Dei that he saw in every person.  You could see it on his show, you can see it in photos.   In this photo: a sweet Gen X boy, Tommy, born in 1973 with hydroencephalitis and who was abandoned by his birth mother.   He passed away in 2011.  This photo went viral after the Sandy Hook school shooting with words of wisdom from Mr. Rogers about when tragedy occurs.
There are so many amazing quotes by Fred Rogers, there are some you already know, and there are some that might surprise you - click here to see a list of them:

Gen Xer, Rolling Stone Magazine writer, and MTV news producer Benjamin Wagner was the actual next door neighbor of Mr. Rogers.   He and his brother Christofer recently created a beautiful documentary on life of Fred Rogers that has already won awards at multiple film festivals: 

In case you didn't know it, Gen Xers, Mr. Rogers left a message for you just before he passed away in 2003, this is his goodbye to us....

He wanted you to know that he is so proud of you.  He knows how hard it can be to look toward the future with hope.  He wants you to know that the message he gave you as a child is the same one he gives you now - you are valued, you are valuable, and he wants you to pass this on to the next generation.  

When I look at the whole of Fred Roger's life, I cannot get over the kind of person he was -  he was a fatherly presence to a fatherless generation.  His legacy spans beyond Generation X, it spans out to all children who are and will be affected by what he taught.  He knew what his calling was, and he followed it with grace, creativity, and originality.  So far, in all my years of researching and writing about Generation X, I haven't found anyone outside of our generation who has ever fought for us in the way that he did.  He stood up for us in front of the U.S. Congress, and delivered a speech that got the funding for a show to go on the air that helped us deal with our fears, and manage life, and growing up.  He changed the course of many of our childhoods, he changed the course of mine.   I hope that as I write more about Generation X, and continue to search through the pages of history to understand what made us who we are, that I find more than just this one person who stood up for us.  I'll keep looking.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for what you did for my generation.

"One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation." - Fred Rogers 1928-2003

(c) 2016 - writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved 

A huge thank you to everyone who has, and who does contribute to PBS.