[Beliefnet, January 25, 2002]
I am writing in regards to your food product, Cheerios. Actually not the Cheerios themselves, which look fine as far as I can tell, but the box. Whatever possessed you to start putting inspirational sayings on the top of the boxes?
A few weeks ago I took a new box of Cheerios from the kitchen cabinet, and as I opened it I saw this printed across the top flap:
"Trust your instincts. You know more than you think you do."
Now, Your Eminence, I’ve never been in the military, and I’m not even sure how to address a General. But I was still pretty surprised at the sentiment. Army life must not be at all like I pictured.
What bothered me most, I think, was that this advice is so vague. It’s the kind of thing I expect to get from a box of tea. I don’t mind having tea whisper sweet nothings, because tea is, after all, a style food. But breakfast cereal is a substance food, and if it’s going to give advice, it should be substantial advice. Like "Change your oil every 3000 miles," or "Hey, everybody, let’s floss!"
Besides, this advice isn’t all that good, is it? Some people know *less* than they think they do —boy, you meet ‘em every day. When they trust their instincts they can get in big trouble. When you see a guy walking around with a black eye, he probably followed his instincts. Personally, I trusted my instincts once, and everybody said "What did you do to your hair?" for weeks. Wouldn’t, "Let’s think things through" or "Consider the consequences" be better advice?
Well, today I went to the store and was unsettled to see that I now have a choice of special messages from Cheerios. The smaller-size boxes read, "Once your consciousness has been raised, it cannot be lowered."
Your Worship, can I ask you a personal question? Just how old are you, anyway? Because, I gotta tell you, I haven’t heard anyone refer to consciousness-raising for about twenty-five years. I know, I led a consciousness-raising group back then. But I was just a college student, and you must have already been a rear admiral or something, because I’m still young enough to know that the phrase has gone the way of "Aquarian."
I don’t know why these messages make me feel kind of irritated‚ a better word might be pestered. I feel surrounded by enough of these vague feel-good sentiments already, on shoe boxes and pharmaceutical ads and inserts that come with the phone bill. They all have in common a self-congratulatory, condescending quality, but they achieve this superior height by being weightless. It’s like Yoda on helium. Dozens of words like "gentle," "earth," "free," "caring," and "self" are floating in the atmosphere, colliding and forming random alliances, then bombarding us from every direction. I feel like I’m living in a box of fortune cookies.
The net effect of all this earnest, ersatz wisdom is like spending a dinner party next to a person who believes that she is whitening her teeth through hypnosis. That’s fine, but please, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll even let you have my raspberry sorbet if you will just please stop talking about it.
My suggestion, Your Honor, would be that you switch to a plain, factual message like "OK, time to eat some more Cheerios," and leave it at that. That’s your area of expertise, after all, and putting it right on top of the box has a baldfaced quality suitable to a grizzled old veteran like yourself. You might call it "supraliminal" advertising. I’ve had it with coyness, with vacuous earnestness, with murmuring pieties that flap their eyelashes across the kitchen table. Just say "Cheerios, it’s what’s for breakfast" and let me figure out the meaning of life on my own time.
Signing off, Sir. Going to enjoy a bowl of nice non-commital corn flakes.
I deleted a paragraph that I liked, but that every time I reread it, it stuck out. It was about a related feeling of annoyance I have with women’s magazines—a similar feeling of being condescended to by a voice that purports to be knowing and wise. I said that I stopped subscribing to womens’ mags because I got fed up with things being described as "funny and wise." Books, movies, songs, people, everything was "funny and wise." I wrote, "If I want funny and wise, I’ll read Dostoevsky in the kiddie pool." It was a good, punchy, curmudgeonly graf, but in terms of subject matter a long way of from breakfast cereals.
I have to give credit to my son Stephen who was in the kitchen when I encountered the Cheerios boxtop, and heard my annoyance, and helped me focus with the comment about "it would be OK on a box of tea, tea is a style food and cereal is a substance food."