OM156 - Trapper Keepers

Being a stationary fetishist (OM156)

John is inclined to suspect that Ken, like John, is somewhat of a stationary fetishist, craving colored pencils, little pencil cases, different notebooks and stuff. Ken doesn’t love the word crave and he is not sure it is a fetish, but he does love stationary! He doesn’t like crave or fetish, because those words get too close to the heart of how he feels about these things.

Last night Ken’s daughter told him she wanted to try out a Japanese brush pen that she had seen one of her friends using. Ken had a bunch of those in his desk, he got one out and they played with it for hours. You can get a beautiful line out of it! She is very artistic and Ken can hang out in an art supply store with her for an hour, something he also loved in his childhood: Just looking at different colors of colored pencils, weird markers, weird erasable markers, and smelly markers.

Not to make every show about how Ken is slightly younger than John, but there was a stationary revolution somewhere along the way when Ken was living in Asia, which was the fount from whence this great revolution in smelly markers arose into the world. Any Japanese department store to this day has a whole floor of stationary and if you want 150 erasers shaped like different kinds of Sushi or every weird combination of Hello Kitty characters on a different little notepad you can find it there.

Two days ago John’s daughter brought a handful of little erasers shaped like Sushi to John and asked what kinds of Sushi they were. This one was clearly salmon, these were fish eggs, and this was Maguro. John has no idea where she got these from. The thing about crazy stationary is that it is like sugar ants: It comes into our lives through little holes. For Ken it usually goes out of his life through little holes, but that is mostly his kids knowing where he keeps his stapler, pencils and Japanese brush pens and he will never see them again.

There was so much you could not buy In East Asia in the early 1980s, like American groceries or any of the American toy brands Ken liked. Instead it was weird Mazinger Z robots and stuff. What you could get that was many times better than anything in a K-Mart was stationary: Amazing pencil boxes with a bunch of secret apartments and a series of buttons. You press button 5 and the pencil sharpener pops out, you press button 6 and the little hidden tray comes out. It was a Transformer in pencil box form, except it didn’t turn into a robot, but into an open pencil box.

Ken loved all this stuff! His school had a little bookstore where you couldn’t buy books, but weird glue and scissors and notebooks and every year he had to have one of these and four of these and six of these according a list that got sent home. He would dutifully buy all his stuff and he would just love it. To this day he loves school- and art supplies.

John loves typography, but he has never taken a calligraphy class. He probably should because he could watch YouTube calligraphy videos all day. There is that whole tradition in Japan where you draw just one character for 25 years and become the master of drawing one character. Ken is going to do that in English, he is thinking about the lower case ”b”.

During Ken’s Halcyon days in Korea with all his scented erasers he would come home to darkest America in the summers for back to school and when shopping at Mervyn’s he would see all the kids getting their cool gear and he felt like he was missing the whole things.

John’s mom and Ken being left-handed people (OM156)

As a left-handed person 3-ring binders are a tyranny. Writing on the paper while it is in the binder is definitely an option for right-handed people who are pulling their hand away from the rings, but if you are left-handed your hand sits right on the rings and you have to snap the paper out, write, and put it back in. This is the kind of persecution Ken had to face his entire life and it has really shaped who he is. Right handers don’t even think about all these things and the right privilege is starting to piss Ken off. Even if you flip the binder upside down it is still the same problem.

John’s mom is left-handed and her handwriting is slanted the complete opposite way up and to the left. John finds it to be the most beautiful handwriting, but when he compares it to other people’s handwriting he realizes how crazy it looks. It is the opposite of italics. She actually moves the book so she can write her style.

Ken had to conform and left-handers had to integrate themselves. He had to learn to tilt his letters the correct way, hold his pen like a right-handed person, he did have a series of hefty-lefty notebooks, which really are for the hearty left-handed gentlemen. John thinks Ken is talking about John’s dating life. It was a spiral-bound notebooks that on the inside of the cover had a bunch of facts about left-handed people and maybe famous left-handers to cheer you up. "Wow, Aristotle was left-handed!" The gimmick was that the rings were on the top, which they sell for normals, too.

In the Avengers movie Scarlett Johansson signs stuff with her left hand, one more reason to love her, and in the credits when the actors are signing their names, you can see that she is left-handed because all the letters go from upper left to lower right. This is very hard to do for a right-handed person and it is ”adorbs” (adorable)!

Stationary situation in John’s early days (OM156)

John’s dad was a lawyer and his mom was a computer programmer in the 1970s and the stationary that he had were yellow legal pads in profusion with chicken-scratched notes taking up the first half of them, so he only had the back half of 1000 yellow legal pads. Most of Ken’s drawing paper was invoices from his grandpa’s pet food sales. John’s mom had giant reams of dot-matrix printer paper that was all connected like the manuscript of On the Road, except it wasn’t toilet paper, with perforations on the side and between sheets. It had green and white striped lines on them so you could know at a glance where you were.

By the time Ken got his first dot-matrix printer it did not have the adding machine lines and he missed out on that, but what a bummer if you were trying to draw and everything is lined and colored. John also had punch cards, but they all had punches taken out of them. He could have used them to reverse-engineer military secrets because each one of them contained all the secrets.

Most of John’s pens were just pens. His dad probably had some good pens, but no-one in John’s family had fountain pens with nibs. There were cheap BIC pens and 3-ring binders that you might find in a law office, and like everything in John’s early childhood it was just cast-off stuff from the military industrial complex. They probably produced a lot of 3-ring binders in the process of putting a man on the moon and afterwards those were disseminated out through the culture. Here is a compass! Here are your white 3-ring binders!

John used to have a little triangular shaped piece of rubber on his pencils to keep his fingers positioned. He held his pencils in a fist which drove his teachers crazy because they wanted him to hold his pencils a certain way. It was agonizing for all of them for years! People would come and take the pencil out of his hand and forcibly shape his fingers the way they wanted him to hold it.

These little rubber things were supposed to make it hard for him to hold it wrong, like the thing you do to a baby’s pinky to make it less fun to suck on, called aversion therapy. You put a metal thing in a kid’s mouth! All it did was make it uncomfortable to hold the pencil in a fist which he continued to do. John shows Ken how he does it and Ken says it is awful and that is not how most people do it.

Sometimes you feel like you were born too late because the things that the generation right before you had seemed more akin to how you imagine yourself, or born too early because you didn’t get all these newfangled gadgets. John was born at exactly the right moment to experience the stationary and school supplies revolution that happened in the very late 1970s / early 1980s because he was in 6th grade in 1979/1980, which was the last year of Elementary School in Alaska where you still have a desk with a top that opens to keep your school supplies in it and you don’t have to move from class to class. It is the last time where you are in the safety of the nest! For Ken it was the last time he had a metal lunch box.

In the fall of 1980 John went to 7th grade where he had a locker and six classes, which was overwhelming for somebody who could never even keep a pencil. John was the ultimate pencil loser, maybe because they all had this gummy thing on them and he intentionally lost them, but suddenly he had a locker and six books and six notebooks and all this responsibility. They don’t ramp up to it! One day you have one class in one room and all of a sudden you have six or seven of everything. Where is your book? Where is your folder? Where is yesterday’s assignment? Where is tomorrow’s assignment?

The Trapper Keeper (OM156)

At this moment in John’s life the great revolution, the Trapper Keeper was introduced in Anchorage. It did not come down from the North Pole, but it was in fact introduced in Wichita, Kansas. At the time Ken was not yet in Korea, they moved in 1981, but he never owned a Trapper Keeper. He saw them, but he somehow missed their ebbs and flows in the time when it would have been perfect for him to have one.

The Trapper Keeper was developed by E. Bryant Crutchfield who worked as the Director of New Ventures for the Mead Corporation, a giant stationary corporation that had its tendrils in many different walks of media production. His job was to go out and come up with new trends in media and he was doing studies in conjunction with someone at Harvard who realized that classroom sizes were getting larger, more and more kids were going to be in schools, and students were getting more and more books and projects. It wasn’t the simple times anymore!

Because of all the competing educational theories coming and going and overlapping they were starting to pile on kids: You got New Math, New Old Math, Old New Math, and you are going to need a book for each one of those things. There was an opportunity in the market for a system for students: Rather than carrying six notebooks from home to school and going back to your locker six times during the day to trade notebooks there was an opportunity for a modular consolidated notebook system where you would have six notebooks within a single folder based on a 3-ring binder model where you can take folders in and out.

It seemed like a space race side effect of efficiency that would appeal to a certain kind of kid who likes to have the gleaming new notebook with their name in the upper right, but also to parents. The stationary school supply boom coincided with the beginning of the super-attentive hovering parent, Boomers who wanted to make sure they are doing everything right and not be the kind of absent out-of-touch parents they were delivered. It appeals to the hyper-organized, but it also appeals to the tragically and chronically disorganized because it offers a solution.

A Western Sales rep of the Mead Corporation suggested Crutchfield to take a look at the Pee Chee Folder that was an ubiquitous school supply in the Western United States, a heavy card-stock peach-colored folder with no rings inside that had pockets on either side that you could slip pieces of paper into as a clamshell organizer, only slightly bigger than a piece of notebook paper.

The folder is peach colored and has clipart drawings of students doing sports. They were maybe the most modified and hilariously hacked of all school-supplies. The famous design from 1964 was done by a graphic artist called Francis Golden who many years later was asked about these drawings that for many students are as familiar as Mickey Mouse, things they saw every single day and he had to be reminded that he had drawn them. He was a famous illustrator, most of his work was in water-color and this was just a commercial art he had done over the course of a weekend.

They continue talking about the cover illustration. Even before John went into 7th grade he knew all about Pee Chees because they were synonymous with High School. These were the real symbols of having graduated to a world where you needed a folder to hold all your papers. He might even have had them in 6th grade, they were a sign that he was moving forward.

Their secondary and maybe more important role was that they were places to doodle. Those six vignettes were so heavily modified because they were an opportunity to be creative. Everybody had the same starting point and depending on how creative you were and how obscene you wanted to be, you could make the figures do awful things or dress them in different clothes.

E. Bryan Crutchfield realized the ingenuity of the side pockets and he integrated that notion into his growing concept of what this system was going to be. Eventually he came up with the idea of these folders that were basically pure rip-offs of Pee Chees, including the multiplication tables printed on the inside and how to convert from metric to imperial and so on.

The special hotness was not the oddly drawn basketball players, but the side pockets, and his idea was that these folders would have punches for 3-ring binders and the Trappers, which is the name he coined for his little folders because they trapped your papers, would be kept in essentially a glorified 3-ring binder with a flap that he called the Trapper Keeper. Ken never understood the name until now and thought it was Trapper in the sense of saying the same thing twice, like Taxi Cab or Pussy Cat. It makes Ken think of Beaver trapping and Fur trapping. John suggests to think of the Keeper as the goalie in soccer, but none of this is useful.

You could buy the trappers separately and a keeper would come with three trappers in primary colors red, green, blue. They decided to test-market the product in Wichita, Kansas. They made a television commercial and flooded Wichita with Trapper Keepers in 1978 during school shopping season and much to their surprise and delight they went viral and everybody in Wichita needed one. In its first iteration they were just primary colors in red, blue, green.

John’s first Trapper Keeper was red and he had red, blue and green folders in it. Later on they became an opportunity for people to be fancy. They were an immediate hit, they were introduced nationwide and by 1980, when John first encountered one, they were absolutely de rigueur. If you did not have one, something was going terribly wrong in your family and your priorities were all mixed up. You absolutely could not show up to class with old legal pads, which was John’s families instinct.

Fortunately they weren’t expensive, they were under $5 and the trappers were maybe $0.50 The trappers were card-stock, almost exactly Pee Chees, but with a slightly glossier finish. The plastic on the outside of the Keeper was open enough so that you could put your own picture, like a DVD case is today and as soon as Mead figured that this was something kids were doing they got on top of it.

John getting stickers in school (OM156)

In the mid-to-late 1980 they hired a young graphic artist by the name of Lisa Frank who had made an empire for herself at the age of 24 designing stickers. Part of this stationary revolution were every manner of little stickers. Ken remembers the sticker boom that was probably mostly for girls, but he didn’t know and thought he had to have a sticker collection. There was a store at the mall that would just sell stickers.

John remembers the first time a teacher gave him a sticker as a prize for having done a good job and feeling like she may as well have given him a gold doubloon. This wasn’t just a gold star (John remembers his first gold star, too), but the first time it was a sticker that said ”Good job!” with an alligator. It was so exciting and it scratches some itch in kids. Teachers can create their own little economies where every one is like: ”You got the alligator? I haven’t got the alligator yet!” Lisa Frank’s drawings are almost quintessentially for the 1980s as they communicate a big-eyed rainbow-drenched cuteness.

John being called a Boomer (OM156)

John is now all the time getting yelled at and called a Boomer on Twitter. When they first came up with Generation X he was at the young side of what they were describing as Generation X, and now he is firmly in the middle of Generation X and he has spent his life at war with the Baby Boomers! In five years kids are going to be asking him what he did in the Korean war. Any time he says something even slightly not-Marxist on the Internet, some handful of kids will be like: ”Boomer!” He agrees that this is an insult, it is just not directed at him!

What’s Up Doc movie (OM156)

Someone accused Ken on Facebook of not knowing the movie What’s Up Doc, but both Ken and John have watched that Barbara Streisand vehicle many times. Ken and his wife would not be together if not for the movie What’s Up Doc. They met at a very chaste after-school soda-fountain party. Archie, Moose and Mitch were all there and she rolled up on her roller skates and Ken was like: ”Want to watch this Barbara Streisand movie at the local library?” where they were having a Barbara Streisand festival. No, this is turning more into a gay pickup! No, she said one line from What’s Up Doc and Ken said the next line and it was like love at first sight! Ken does know What’s Up Doc, don’t come at him! Ken and his wife are the only two kids at BYU (Brigham Young University) who have ever even seen a Barbara Streisand movie.

A lot of those kids were surely growing up in heavy VHS homes with a lot of their parents’ 1970s classics in heavy rotation. They could probably quote every line of Saturday Night Fever or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is very on the nose. A couple of Ken’s Mormon friends were very into those 1960s movies with magnificent men in their flying machines, like The Great Race.

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