Tag Archives: Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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Con and Pro Wrestling

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Last Saturday, I saw wrestling.  Not in an arena, or a gymnasium.  In a run-down urban St. Louis building that reminded me of my 1970s-era Brooklyn elementary school cafeteria, or maybe a pre-latte and pilates YMCA, the kind of place that holds Bingo—and, between bouts, it does.  Yet inexplicably, incongruously, the old room holds a wrestling ring in the middle of the old slab flooring, surrounded by metal folding chairs that just cried out to be used as a bludgeon and oblong tables older than I am.  So no, not—fffphuh!—college wrestling.  The real kind, with eye gouging, spandex speedos with knee-high tights, and pre-politically correct racial stereotyping.  Call it amateur professional wrestling. 

Now, I’m no snob and no prude and no stranger to the squared circle.  My man Roland “The Body” Barthes was grappling with wrestling’s semiotics back in 1957. God help me, I saw Randy “Macho Man” Savage marry Miss Elizabeth in Madison Square Garden in 1988, wrestling’s late-Cretaceous when big, balding men hulked across the cultural landscape, endorsing Slim Jims and appearing in mainstream music videos until finally driven to near extinction by the collective comet of suicides and sex scandals and steroid hearings and movies starring Mickey Rourke.  Reptilian wrestling just couldn’t compete with the lithe and mammalian cunning of mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting.   

Yet its saurian vestiges live on in the margins.  It’s been decades since I’ve seen a wrestling match even on TV, so I was excited and interested.  And when the match started—a huge self-reported Texan against a flamboyantly dressed long-haired Latino (I shit you not)—I was surprised by how fake it looked.

Now, I realize that this is not exactly breaking news.  Jesse Ventura has crippled journalists for saying less.  Yet the fakery was faking indisputable.  The punches were inept and inches off their mark, accompanied by obvious footstomps to sweeten the sound.   The laws of physics prevent the men from reversing and running after bouncing off the ropes unless they were playing along, and a single booted kick from a man that size would hospitalize anyone, to say nothing of the dozen administered in as many seconds.  I laughed at its violent pantomime.  Barthes writes that “There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre,” and in a sense he’s right. I don’t mess with the Roland.  But this seemed more farce than falsehood.

Bear with me for a moment.  One of my favorite sequences in all of children’s literature is the scene in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” when “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”  It’s the imaginative transition, where one thing slowly but almost imperceptibly becomes another even as we watch it happen, becoming that which we wish, and fear, most.  Max’s punishment and loss of power in his child’s fantasy are transmogrified into a world without walls, and, soon, the Wild Things, looking more like grotesque Old World aunts and uncles than monsters proper, crown him king, the power as inverted as the room’s insides and outsides.  

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This transformation is the best comparison I can think of for what happened during the next wrestling match.  By the end, I was smiling not because it was imaginary, but because, like Max’s place where the wild things are, it had become real before my eyes, almost one panel at a time.  I was smiling now for real, too, with, not at, the match, seeing the spectacle, the sadistic ballet (unless all ballet is sadistic ballet) less as a bout than a fun, homoerotic, testosterone tango.  And in the Trash Can of my mind, one I long thought Emptied, language emerged intact, and I felt it on my lips: a summersault dual flip: suplex, I felt myself whisper.  Where did that come from?  Running directly into a Rockettes-style kick: big boot.  A theatrical slap across the chest: knife edge.  A rolled, squatted pin: small packageTurnbuckle.  LariatClothesline.  Who am I?

But of course, after a few more matches—the thing went on for hours—the magic wore off and the novelty wore out.  Like Max, I went to where the wild things are, but then it was enough, and I was more than ready to render the words dormant for another few decades, to return to the mundane walls of my former life, where my supper was still waiting for me.  And it was still hot.

Reader, I microwaved it.

Time:  50 minutes

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