Category Archives: Uncategorized

Nim Chimpsky, Vermont, and so on

This is probably going to be my last post for a couple of months — not like that’s an unusual pace for me, but I have a reason this time.  In just a few days I’m going to Costa Rica for two months to write a book that may or may not be set in the 18th century and may involve pirates.  Old-timey ones, with eyepatches, parrots, etc.  Meantime, I’m waiting out this hurricane in New York that I’m 90% sure is going to turn out to be all newsroom bluster; sort of a Y2K for the weather.

I had an amazing time at the Bread Loaf Writing Conference in Vermont earlier this month.  I met a lot of great friends, and heard a lot of great literature being read.  Also, I wrote an article about the recent documentary film Project Nim for Dissent Magazine.

And there’s more.  Two friends of mine have books coming out nowish: Stuart Nadler’s fantastic collection of stories, The Book of Life

and Justin Torres’ We the Animals.

Buy these books!  Read them!

Ciao.

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The Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War

I’m not even going to mention that it’s been almost two months since I posted anything on here.  I’m just going to say that The L Magazine just published one of my short stories and maybe if you want you could go read it.  It’s about childhood.  It’s also probably the most directly autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.

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An ape like me

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Filed under Anger, Apes, Douglas Adams, Environmentalism, evolution, Film, Frans de Waal, Literature, Monkeys, Morality, Music, Power, primatology, Religion, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Uncategorized

Days of Wine and Primates

If you happen to be in New York, come to this on Thursday.  Vol. 1 Brooklyn is joining forces with Fortnight Journal to make this happen.  It’ll be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

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In other news…

I finally posted something on here again.  Also, I recently noticed that nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bears an almost uncanny resemblance to late-career Bob Dylan.

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λέγομαι ἐγώ

I signed up for my first class in Ancient Greek mostly because I wanted to get to know the legendarily eccentric professor, Sam Seigle, who taught—and still teaches—Classics at Sarah Lawrence College.  I still consider Sam a great friend, and from time to time I take the train up to Westchester to visit him.  He’s 78 now, and still teaching full-time.  He’s an amazing man, but he is not the subject of this essay.  I bring him up because, while studying Ancient Greek with Sam, I read a lot of Plato.  Plato’s prose, even for Greek, is particularly mazy with double entendres and circuitous grammatical magic tricks that are very specific to the Greek language.  It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t studied it, but Ancient Greek is a language built for labyrinthine wordplay.  Reading a really interesting sentence of Plato in Greek is the linguistic equivalent of peering into a kaleidoscope—the harmonious and liquidly transformative geometry of its grammar can be dazzling.  When I was a sophomore in college, taking Beginning Greek with Sam, and first starting to struggle my way through Plato, I had a very interesting dream.

My dream was basically an Eggo Waffles commercial.  Any American child born between say, 1970 and 1995 probably has the tagline from those commercials burned irreversibly into her brain.  Maybe they’re still on TV, I don’t know—I haven’t watched Saturday morning cartoons since I became more interested in Saturday nights.  The commercial would usually go something like this (though YouTube has recently jogged my memory that there were many, many variants, in my mind this one is the classic narrative of an Eggo Waffles commercial, and so it was in my dream).  Big Brother hovers expectantly over the toaster, waiting for his Eggo Waffle to pop out in a state of crisp, golden perfection.  The instant the waffle leaps out of its slot in the toaster, Little Brother swoops in from out of nowhere and swipes the waffle before lumbering, dimwitted Big Brother knows what’s happening, and is already halfway out the door and on his way to school, backpack slung rakishly over one shoulder, triumphantly waving the snatched waffle.  And Big Brother, his sense of elder-born entitlement ripped out from under him, looks at Little Brother in hurt, baffled dismay, and says:

“Hey!  Leggo my Eggo!”

It was always some variation of that scenario.  A younger brother stealing the Eggo waffle from an older brother, or a son from a father.  Or an attempted theft was thwarted.  But whatever happened, the underdog figure always got the Eggo, and the last line was always, “Leggo my Eggo!”  At the end of the vignette we cut to a plate of Eggo Waffles, sopping in syrup and a melting pat of butter, the delicious goo brimming over the edges of one waffle-cell to the next, cascading down the waffle-pile.  The waffles are accompanied by some classic synecdoches for the concept of breakfast: coffee, juice, etc.  Behind this still life is the Eggo Waffles box—the product, letting you see the image of the thing you’re supposed to pester your mom to buy you in the grocery store.  On the box is a magnified picture of the Eggo Waffles, enlarged to show texture.  Above the waffles, written in a bubbly red cursive script, reads the name of the product.  But in my dream, the object looked like this:

I created this illustration by carefully doctoring a picture of a box of Eggo Waffles on Photoshop, and I confess I’m a little proud of it. Instead of “Eggo Waffles,” the box reads, in Ancient Greek, “λέγομαι ἐγώ”—the first word being the first-person singular indicative middle passive form of the common Greek verb λέγω, meaning “to speak,” and the second word being ἐγώ, which is essentially the Greek word for “I”—but it’s more than just “I”—it means one’s self, one’s being, and it’s the word from which we derive “ego.”  The phrase in Greek is an almost exact, syllable-for-syllable homonym for the phrase “Leggo my Eggo!”  But in Ancient Greek, the multifocal language of Plato, Homer and Heraclitus, the phrase can be interpreted in multiple ways.  It could mean something as mundane as “I say to myself,” but grammatically it basically means, “I get myself spoken,” which I think could be interpreted to mean, “I speak myself into existence.”

This also led me to the thought that the theme of the fight between brothers over the Eggo waffle is a contemporary reinterpretation of a very old story.  The mythopoetic archetypes are there.  It’s Jacob stealing the birth rite from Esau.

This in turn led me to thinking about other commercials for food aimed at children.  I identified several common strategies.

One is to instigate generational warfare: the Orwellian tactic of turning children against their parents.  The 80s-90s Apple Jacks campaign is a good example of this.  An Apple Jacks commercial from this period would typically feature a group of “cool kids”—older preteens, sloppily dressed, confidant, laid-back and laconic, sitting around in a tree house or similar hangout spot suggestive of the interstitial time between “pure” childhood and early adolescence, passing around a box of Apple Jacks, from which the kids are eating handfuls of the cereal—dry, raw, loose.  (The communal passing around of a key sociocentric object is obviously a stand-in for teenage vices soon to come—a bottle of booze, a joint.)  At some point an uncool adult—say, a well-intentioned but helplessly clueless dad—intrudes on the situation to sample the Apple Jacks, and says, “They don’t even taste like Apples.”

The kids shrug.  They don’t care if it tastes like apples or not.  They just like them, so, like, fuck it.  Why not?  One of the kids says: “It’s a kid thing.”

Then the dad shakes his head and walks away in bafflement, probably wondering how such a generation will one day fill the labor force, and what will become of the civilization of his fathers when these incomprehensible brats inherit the earth.

The Apple Jacks commercial says to kids: We are on your side.  You and we are united in opposition against the adult world.

Of course this strategy may backfire, as parents will at some point become necessary to actually buy the product.  I’m sure this was the idea behind the much softer, kinder slogan for Kix cereal: “Kid Tested.  Mother approved.”  I’m hard-pressed to think of any other breakfast cereal that was openly marketed to both children and their parents simultaneously.  I don’t have the data on exactly how well Kix did then, or does now, in the cereal market, but it certainly isn’t among the top competitors.  (From year to year, the top-selling cereals remain Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms.)  Assuaging the fears of health-conscious mothers is a nice idea, but the numbers indicate it may not be worth it.  It’s a far more effective strategy to build on the child’s desire, and it’s hard for a kid to get too worked up over something that receives a tepid nod of “approval” from the adult establishment.

Another common figure in breakfast cereal campaigns is the provider archetype.  Some characters falling into this category: Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, the Kool-Aid Man, Cap’n Crunch.  This character is a benevolent sort of mascot figure, who distributes the product to children, or at least shows them where to find it (“Follow my nose!”).  The relationship between this figure and children is always loving and beneficial, rather than antagonistic.

Antagonism, however, is the most common theme in these commercials, and the one broadly outlined in the Eggo Waffles commercials.  Kids’ cereal commercials provide a litany of variations on the theme of antagonism or pursuit: the underdog trickster, with whom the audience is meant to indentify or at least root for, cleverly stealing the product from the more powerful figure.  It’s important that the contest is seen as a zero-sum game: as a matter of course, to have an Eggo Waffle is always to prevent someone else from having an Eggo Waffle.  There must be a preciously limited supply of waffles.  Maybe it is the last waffle left in the box.  Otherwise, Big Brother could simply toast another one, in which case it’s not so much the waffle that Little Brother has stolen, but Big Brother’s time, energy and dignity.

The romanticism of righteous theft is very important to the psychology of these commercials.  This theme includes many of the pursuer/pursuant narratives: Cookie Crisps, Honey Smacks, Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, Trix.  Lucky the Leprechaun is locked in a state of eternal pursuit, fleeing the kids who are always after his Lucky Charms.  The Trix Rabbit is the reversal of this: it’s the kids who are in possession of the Trix, and the Rabbit who forever chases after them in vain.  The theme is desire—the always frustrated pursuit, the desideratum seemingly close but tantalizingly remaining always just out of reach.

What does this describe?  Erotic desire.  The construct is a play on the theme of the lover and the beloved.  In Plato’s Symposium—which is of personal significance to me, because it was the first Platonic dialogue I read in Greek, and I read it with Sam Seigle—all the assembled guests at the symposium make speeches in praise of Eros, and wind up creating competing and contradictory accounts of the god’s origin.  Finally, Socrates speaks, and uses his turn to tell the story of his visit to Diotima, the “Wisewoman of Mantinea,” who tells Socrates that Eros is the child of Resource and Poverty.  Compare the Trix Rabbit to Diotima’s description of Eros: “By birth neither immortal nor mortal, in the selfsame day he is flourishing and alive at the hour when he is abounding in resource; at another he is dying, and then reviving again … yet the resources that he gets will ever be ebbing away; so that Eros is at no time either resourceless or wealthy, and furthermore, he stands midway betwixt wisdom and ignorance.”

Silly Eros.  Love is for kids.

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The Assassination of Yogi Bear by the Coward Boo-Boo

I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything here.  More coming, I swear.  For now?  This is brilliant.  I understand it was produced by the actual animators of the film.

Thanks Evan Davis for alerting my attention to this.

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