Day 754: Getting Both Jiggy And All That With My Lost 90s Fads

originally published January 23, 2014

I’ll never forget the day I finally learned how to see the 3D image in those Magic Eye posters. I’ll never forget it because that day was today. I’m not joking – after over twenty years of trying to gaze “through” those colorful posters of blurs, shapes and pixels, I have at long last trained my eyes to witness their hidden image. I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary, stomping his triumphant foot upon Everest’s peak.  

Well, I suppose the metaphor only works if Hillary had arrived atop Mount Everest’s snowy chapeau to find a gaggle of tourists, a shopping district and a nightclub that has long since passed its hipness date. I’m a little late to the party, I understand that. But I made it through the door and I’m pretty sure there are one or two semi-cold Coors Lights still drifting around the liquefied ice in the cooler. 

I spent the 1990’s transitioning from a sloppy-haired, disenfranchised model of teen disconnect into a sloppy-haired, not-yet-enfranchised father of two, and along the way I paid only a trickle of interest in the current youth fads and cultural party favors of the generation after mine. I watched Top 40 radio disintegrate into something that didn’t interest me (though in all fairness, that wasn’t a big fall), noticed women’s hair lose its spray-locked poof, and exchanged most of my cultural congruence for a seat on the fringe, squinting from the outside at the weirdness within. 

Perhaps it’s time I catch up. 

The Magic Eye poster is technically an autostereogram, the 1979 brainchild of psychophysicist Christopher Tyler. The trick to the images is in the horizontal patterns, which differ just a little with each repetition, creating the illusion of depth. To see the hidden picture, I have been told to “relax the eyes” or “focus beyond the picture”, but neither of those instructions did a thing for me. On the Optometrists’ Network site I found the trick that tweaked my brain: 

It’s simply a matter of allowing the eyes to drift apart a little, to see two images (or four eyeballs in the above picture). If you can line up two of the eyeballs so that you can see three in a row, you’ve got it. That’s the technique that makes the Magic Eye image pop out.  

Authors Tom Baccei and Cheri Smith put together a book of colorful autostereograms in 1991, but couldn’t find any takers in the USA. They pitched it to a magic supply company in Japan, and – as with much of the cultural debris of the 1990’s – we simply adopted the fad here as an import. 

The 90’s was an insipid era for toys, at least for the ones that climbed to the top of the sales heap. But if I am truly to embrace the tropes of the decade I’m going to have to scrounge up a used first-gen Tamagotchi. While I respect a toy that teaches children that everything they love will someday die (and often because of their own negligence), I don’t know if I can invest the time to play with this thing properly. I already have two jobs, a family, and an excuse to neglect them all by writing a kilograph every day – I’m not sure if a virtual pet in my care would make it past the larval stage. 

Schools banned these things, as initially they weren’t built with a pause feature. Jumping to the menu to set the clock was a secret way to freeze one’s obligations to feed, play with and scold these pseudo-sentient pixels, but for the most part kids were expected to abandon their own lives in the interest of keeping their keychain friends alive.  

I sincerely look forward to many months of cleaning up virtual poo, ideally while driving or conversing with my kids. 

Here’s a trend I like – jewelry that is inherently ugly and/or tacky to the observer, but is made to be ‘fun’ in the act of putting it on. The Slap Wrap (or simply slap bracelet) is one fad that didn’t surf over from Japan. The Main Street Toy company, based in Simsbury, CT, unleashed these limb-hugging ornaments to the toy market in 1990, and while they enjoyed massive success for about ten or fifteen minutes as the fad exploded all over western society, they also faced competition from numerous knock-offs. These weren’t Swatches; kids didn’t care about the brand, they just enjoyed snapping these things over their wrists. 

Schools tried to keep these off their property as well, as it was discovered that the cloth around the steel bistable spring bands could wear down, exposing sharp edges to young arm-flesh. The technology still exists (some cyclists will use these to keep their pant-legs taut around their ankles), but I don’t think it’s come far enough. I want an entire wardrobe I can slap around my body. Getting dressed in the morning could be taken care of in less than eleven seconds. Now that’s a trend that would stick. 

If a Tribble had sex with Mr. Potato Head, the Furby would be the result. When these toys came out, I was too busy teaching my 1-year-old daughter to talk to devote a similar effort toward a big-eared owl-like robot. The idea with the Furby is that it learns English words as it ‘grows’, sticking with them if you properly reward them with a pat on the head (which you can probably do with a floppy tube of processed turkey loaf if you want to take this to a disturbingly weird place). 

What the Furby can’t do is learn whatever you teach it, which is something the National Security Agency wasn’t aware of when they banned the toys from their premises in 1999. It has a pre-programmed, limited vocabulary. This is too bad, as I was hoping to teach the little robot all of Johnny 5’s lines from Short Circuit, thus providing me with yet another opportunity for some Steve Guttenberg roleplay. 

It simply ain’t a 90’s party until someone shows up wearing an awareness ribbon. Where once a yellow ribbon signified a loved one overseas in the war (and a cheese-ass Tony Orlando and Dawn song), now we have dozens of ribbon configurations with hundreds of meanings. As part of my effort to embrace that decade I mostly skipped, I feel I should immediately acquire several of these so that people will know that I care enough about a cause to take the time to affix a small piece of cloth to the exterior of my shirt. 

I’ll wear a blue ribbon, but I won’t tell people if that’s because I’m supporting Canada’s National Non-Smoking Week or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome awareness. I’ll wear a purple ribbon, maybe for Pagan Pride, maybe for testicular cancer awareness, or perhaps because I hope to save the whales. People will consider me noble when my orange ribbon reflects an awareness of both malnutrition and leukemia, but in fact I’ll only wear it in support of free software advocacy. A green ribbon can represent both organ donation awareness and pedestrian safety. Some of these colors have as many as 25 different meanings. 

That’s a lot of ribbons. Perhaps I’ll find a way to stitch them into one massive all-encompassing, all-caring shirt.  

Ideally one I can put on by simply slapping over my abdomen. 

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