A southern California manifesto
by Kendal McGinnis; illustration by Emma Kerr
There’s nothing like microwaveable taquitos on a hot summer day in sunny San Diego. I spatter some Tapatío onto the paper plate. It’s July something. The T.V. buzzes in the background. I’m on the couch. My Converse teeter off the corner of the coffee table. Then, I hear it. And with the fanfare of nostalgia, I’m reunited with the theme song that started it all.
We are riders on a mission,
Action kids in fun condition.
Prepare to countdown...
The television series “Rocket Power” debuted on August 16, 1999, and new episodes aired most Sundays at 9 a.m. PST until 2004. And here I was, in 2015, confronted with a re-run of the program that had consumed my threes to my eights. The show follows four middle school -aged extreme sports enthusiasts—Otto, Reggie, Twister and Squid—on their day-to-day adventures. They cut class, dodge their parents and roam the streets of Ocean Shores, California. Each episode features at least one extreme sport, from roller hockey to skateboarding to BMX-biking to surfing. It was my Aesop if I ever had one.
Klasky Csupo Inc., a Los Angeles television production company famous for “Rugrats” and “The Wild Thornberrys,” cashed in on a dying culture. With “Rocket Power,” Klasky exploited the late ‘90s/early ‘00s extreme sports zest that died both with Jay Moriarity and PS2’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. “Rocket Power” emerged with the grace of a well-executed heelflip and fizzled after the mediocrity of season four and bankruptcy. The show inspired a generation—the schoolboys of inner-city La Jolla, the white girls of West L.A.—and then left us innertube-less in the shallow end: drowning.
Colorado College’s Southern Californians share their experience with the new and foreign locale of Colorado. San Diegan Austin Ronningen says, “The sand at home was my safe space, and the sand pit on the beach volleyball court here is not the same.” Fellow San Diegan Kai Mesman-Hallman says, “I see people here taking 20 minute showers, and coming from a place that’s in a drought, it’s really inconsiderate.”
“Rocket Power” is a “symbol of our heritage,” Ronningen says. We’re meant to embrace the stereotype.
“Rocket Power” is a manifestation of the proto-stoner culture that inspired our native tongue. Our saliva is slow-talking pseudo depth, like, we think before we speak, like, it’s a whole new lingo, like, dude, really? We Southern Californians are unshakeably insecure about the dumb-ish lexicon that springs from “Rocket Power” slang: terms like SHOOBIES!1 and “wicked” may have given way to “dank” (awesome), “fosh” (for sure), and an excess of “likes” and “literallys,” but the “SHOOBIES” phenomenon still exists. Much like the Rocket kids and their rehash on Nickelodeon, we millennials are toddling hangovers from the ‘90s.
We’re miseducated. We’re second generation self-made. We’re nouveau riche. We drive SUVs, GMCs and White Jeeps. We wear joggers in the winter. Our rearview windows are always bound for Coachella. We recycle. We’re materialists right down to our kaleidoscopic umbrellas. We seaglass hunt for cigarette butts. Our dog-and-skate parks are buried beneath eight lanes of exhaust fumes. We’re freeway-side suburbs. We’re $4.50 a gallon. We’re drought-ridden and our only rain is Purple. We miss our skimboards. We’re white people with dreads. We appropriate Cinco de Mayo. Our burritos never unravel. We put the PC in PCH. We drive among the stars. We guffaw in self-defense at SNL’s “The Californians,” feeling pigeonholed and alone. We bathe in salt water. Our brains are bottomless jacuzzis. Our egos are as systematic as the cars that crawl on our freeways. Though everyone knows our stereotype is overblown, we still loiter in the déjà vú.
I can’t watch anymore. I grab the remote and flip the channel.
I flip it back. Meet the cast. Raymundo Rocket: He monopolized the Pier restaurant scene and “rad dad” culture alike. He was simultaneously capitalism and freedom from it, set in the body of a flip-flop-wearing blonde. Reggie Rocket: She added depth to the tomboy and coined 21st-century Feminism. Otto Rocket: He put a face to So-Cal’s superiority complex. Maurice “Twister” Rodriguez: He iconicized Gromlyfe before it was hashtagged. Sam “Squid” Dullard: He epitomized the SHOOBIE!
A taquito half hangs from my lip. Tapatío trickles down my cheek. I keep watching, enraptured by the two dimensionality of the 2002 graphics. To a mind wearily attuned to “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers,” the composition of Rocket Power seems so simple: flat lines, basic shapes, mediocre orthogonals. However, like abstract expressionists, the producers were interested more in color and the emotion it elicits. Think neon. The colors are bold, they’re gauche, they’re expressive. They jump off the screen. Imagine some straight-outta-UC kid gawking at graffitied stucco on acid and writing down a scheme. How perfect in the era of colorblindness.
The more I watch, the more I notice the ostensibly innocuous inconsistencies. Though, what’s more dangerous than the Rockets’ and friends’ frequent use of “crap” and “crud” is the show’s sense of racial ambiguity. I chew on a taquito. Although Raymundo, the father, is recognizably white, his children are darker, greenish brown skin and purplish dreadlocks. I swallow. What’s more alarming is the ongoing joke the kids make of poking fun at Twister Rodriguez’s real name, “Maurice,” which Twister resultantly despises. Moreover, Twister’s older brother, Lars, is observably the most dark skinned character on the show and is portrayed as a remorseless bully to Twister and his friends. Gearing up to wear the white privilege “Rocket Power” fashioned in us, we young Southern Californians were trained to spit back what we absorbed. Like beginners, we now ride the literal whitewash that is surf and So-Cal culture and pretend not to notice that lifeguards are trained to racially profile just as much as the TSA.
Rewatching “Rocket Power” evokes in me a sense of estranged self-identity: It’s like looking at myself diagonal in the mirror. And while I had hoped to grow out of my “Rocket Power” phase in 2005, I also hope Reggie and Otto and the Rocket kids never left 2004. I hope they missed the Zinc and Heelys phenomenon of ‘07 and the Ripstik recession of ‘09. But sadly, I’ve seen these washed-up Ottos and Reggies everywhere, silhouettes of their former selves. I’ve seen sun-glassed Reggies in the foreground of Turner’s sunset, in the drive-thru at In-N-Out. I’ve seen them surfing their self-defacement in empty pools; seen them contemplating whether or not a second cartilage piercing will make ‘em boyz go crazy. I’ve seen Ottos on the bluffs, on the pier, at the strip-mall’s froyo saloon. I’ve seen them twiddling their vapes outside their passenger windows. I’ve seen them find haven only in jerking off to Alana Blanchard and hotboxing daddy’s new Tesla. Mortifying.
In time we’ve accepted that we’re full-blown misperceptions: our attire, our tongue and our subdued morale. Like turtle-necked hickies, we’re suppressed. We the dwellers of Southern California will fight all night, or at least until it gets too cold, to ignore the fact that we’re all just shoobies trying to find our way home.