Technically, I’m a ‘90s kid. I was born in 1991, I spent my formative years in tie-dye, and I’ve clicked more than my fair share of “Only ‘90s Kids Will Remember This” lists. But, if I’m being honest, I’ve never really identified as a “‘90s kid.” I’m more of a ‘90s-ish kid: old enough to remember the era, too young to have participated in earnest. Which is a shame, because if the current ‘90s revival has taught me anything, it’s that the ‘90s were, to borrow a phrase, “da bomb”: grunge, butterfly clips, no smartphones, lots of dunkable snacks, face-to-face human interaction, a stable economy, scrunchies, absolutely no smartphones, body glitter, a manageable number of television channels, weird board games... Oh, and did I mention no smartphones?
All the cultural reminiscing has made me envious of my 7-year-old self. She didn’t know how good she had it. Seven-year-old Kelley didn’t spend her time watching her friends have fun while she scrolled through apps at home — she just had fun with her friends! And, when 7-year-old Kelley had fun with her friends, she didn’t worry about how to make it look even more fun so that her friends at home would have something to watch. She never found herself paralyzed with indecision in movie rental shops or record stores because she was presented with a finite number of options. In short, her life existed on a smaller, more human scale that had nothing to do with her age, and 25-year-old Kelley is jealous.
Jealous enough that I decided to stage a little experiment: Recently, I gave up my smartphone and my high-speed internet connection and challenged myself to live like a ‘90s kid for a day.
Challenge #1: Getting Dressed
I’m not going to lie: I was not excited about dressing like a ‘90s kid. I am not good at clothes — picking or wearing them. Fashion is a thing I only enjoy on other people. I wear boring clothes intentionally, like a total buzzkill. But what’s the point of a faux time travel experience if you don’t commit? So, in an effort to be a loud and proud ‘90s kid, I did some research. I spent the night before my ‘90s day looking at photos of glam and grungy starlets online. During my search, I was struck by two things: 1) how bad red-carpet photography used to be and 2) the realization that authenticity probably wasn’t the best path for me, style-wise.
So, I decided just to pile everything on: slouchy socks, flannel, a tattoo choker, tie-dye, slap bracelets (plural), my co-worker’s loud vintage jacket, butterfly clips, a second choker just in case you missed the first one. I crimped my hair. I put on some dark lipstick. Why wear one historically accurate trend when you can wear them all?
The result was a truly deranged-looking outfit my 7-year-old self would have loved. If I could have dressed like this every day in elementary school, I would’ve been thrilled. The only thing my younger self would’ve added is copious amounts of body glitter. Oh man, did I love body glitter. From like ‘97 to ‘02, I wore multiple layers of body glitter every day — glitter lotion topped with body glitter topped with body gems. Unfortunately, my skin has gotten more sensitive with age, and I break out in hives just thinking about the smelly, sparkly goos I used to put on my body.
So, sorry, Little Kel. I was only able to live out most of our ‘90s style dreams.
Challenge #2: Making a Mixtape
After I got dressed, I moved on to the challenge I was most excited about: making a proper mixtape. I love music. I love making playlists. I’ve made countless mix CDs for friends. But prior to this experiment, I’d never made a proper mixtape. I don’t think I had even owned a cassette tape. I was, however, envious of people with stacks of mixtapes covered in carefully written notes. There was something so romantic about that. CDs felt sterile in comparison. So I was very, very excited to finally make a mixtape of my own.
And then I tried to put the cassette tape in the player.
What a disaster. I fumbled with the tape for a full minute. I put it in backward. I put it in upside down. I couldn’t get the player to close. I took it out. I looked at it and tried again. Eventually, I got it to work, but it was a total fluke. I knew I wouldn’t be able to smoothly re-create that success.
I tried not to dwell on that, however. Once the tape was securely in the player, I plowed on to the next stage: recording a song! Which meant I had to sit and listen to the radio until a song I liked came on. Just sit there! I station-surfed for a while, trying to find a song I liked. I’d like to say I was patient, but I was not. At all. After about 30 seconds of clicking through the FM dial, I decided this tape would be a “practice tape” and just started recording the song that was playing. I sat patient-ishly while the song played and stopped the recording when it ended.
Eager to listen to my surely successful test, I rewound the tape and pressed play. Silence. I rewound and then pressed play again. More silence. Again. Then, frustrated, I opened the tape deck to retrieve my test tape. It’s then I discovered the problem: The literal tape had gotten caught. Shiny film was everywhere. I tried to take the tape out, and it was stuck. Like, really stuck. Scissors-were-required stuck.
I failed the mixtape challenge. Just totally and completely failed it. I wrecked the tape player before I even got the chance to hear my tape play back. And in less than 10 minutes!
But as embarrassing as my failure was, it only affirmed what I suspected at the start: Old-school mixtapes are the most romantic gesture in the world. The process is so labor-intensive and so, so personal. It reveals mix CDs and playlists for what they are: trivial and entirely unserious. Real love deserves a real mixtape.
Challenge #3: Waiting for a Friend
While the mixtape challenge was a bit of a fiasco, I fortunately had another challenge lined up to distract me from my embarrassment: I had arranged with a friend to get lunch and eat in the park. Easy, right? Uh…as if!
Getting to Wendy’s was easy. My friend Emily and I had agreed to meet at Wendy’s to pick up lunch before spending the afternoon in the park. New York City is a grid, so finding my way to the restaurant was no big deal. I arrived at the location early, pleased with my punctuality and navigational skills.
The it hit me: I had nothing to do while I waited.
I didn’t have a phone to mess around on. I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, so it would be weird to pull out a book. I couldn’t move to a less awkward reading location because Emily and I had agreed to meet outside the restaurant, and if I changed locations I had no way to tell her. I was stuck. I was bored. And I just had to ride it out. Ten minutes doesn’t feel like much when you’re occupied, but let me tell you: 10 minutes feels like an eternity when you’re just standing on the sidewalk waiting.
Eventually, Emily showed up and put an end to my suffering. But not before I had a serious crisis about my inability to just be with myself for short periods of time. What have I done to my brain?! Why can’t I slow down and just be?! I tried to talk myself down as Emily and I ordered lunch at Wendy’s — Taco Salad, natch — and headed to the park.
Challenge #4: Analog Afternoon
In the park, Emily and I ate lunch and chatted happily without interruption. I didn’t have my phone so was able to give her stories my full attention. She told me about a recent date, and I didn’t once slip away to attend to a chirping device. Instead, I listened and laughed and only occasionally worried about the emails and texts I wasn’t responding to.
My anxiety continued to subside as the afternoon went on. I had packed a bunch of ‘90s kid games in my bag, and I was eager to use them to distract myself from my present-day neuroses.
First up: MASH, every ‘90s kid’s favorite fortune-telling game. MASH stands for mansion, apartment, shack, house, and, according to the game, you will only ever live in one. You flesh out the game by listing potential significant others, jobs, and numbers of children. You can add other variables, but those are the traditional ones. You then randomly pick a number and count your way through the options, slashing potential futures as you go. It’s the perfect afternoon activity: simple, arbitrary, and time-consuming. While the setup takes seconds, the process creates lots of opportunities to gossip. You spend much more time gossiping about crushes and talking about your aspirations than ticking off list items. It’s kind of brilliant, actually.
After “predicting” our futures with MASH notes, we moved on to the much more scientific process of “predicting” our futures using an origami fortune-teller. We asked our paper-covered fingers lots of silly questions — "Will my favorite band reunite?" "Should I have an underwater scuba wedding?" — and learned a lot about each other in the process. I realized playing with the fortune-teller that a lot of the games we played as kids in the ‘90s were basically glorified icebreakers; they existed mainly to generate conversation and prompt disclosure. More of this in 2016, please!
Eventually we ran out of queries to run by our paper fortune-tellers, so we decided to engage in the most ‘90s of activities: Hacky Sack. I have no idea if Hacky Sack has rules. All I know is that growing up, the cool, grungy kids I admired would stand in a circle and kick the footbag around. That’s it. So, Emily and I tried to kick it back and forth. Tried being the operative word. Even though it was just the two of us, we could barely complete a pass. It mostly bounced from our feet to the ground. Every now and then, I kicked to her and she tapped it back — an accomplishment that was not the least bit notable from the outside but extremely exciting for us. We kept going like that for a while, trying and struggling to get the footbag to do our bidding.
Suddenly, we realized that several hours had passed, and it was time to head back to my apartment. There’s something pleasant about how uninterrupted time moves: Activities feel like they’re happening in slow motion, but the hours pass by quickly. It’s like being present and focused on the moment creates a little bubble that carries you through the day. It’s something I remember experiencing all the time as a kid but have only experienced fleetingly as an adult.
Challenge #5: Slumber Party
There was only one way our ‘90s day could end: making friendship bracelets and watching VHS tapes, sleepover-style. It was the first time all day I had interacted with a screen, and it was nothing like the automatic, now-now-now of streaming. We had to find the tapes. Pick a tape. Rewind the tape. Sit through pre-movie warnings. We were, again, forced to slow down. Which is hard! I can’t remember the last time I just watched a movie in my apartment. I’m always on my phone or laptop doing something else at the same time. I’m always splitting my attention. I’ve habituated myself to fractured attention, so I was happy to be knotting a friendship bracelet while the movie played. It took some time, but eventually the anxious butterflies in my chest settled, and I was able to enjoy the movie.
When the movie was over, I experienced an impulse I haven’t felt in decades: Let’s rewind and do that all over again. All of it. The whole day. Hanging out ‘90s-style wasn’t just revealing (I really need to spend less time on my phone), it was fun! Like, really fun! Or, as 7-year-old Kelley would say, “all that and a bag of chips.”
Photographs by Lauren Zaser © BuzzFeed.