So it’s a Saturday in 1960, say, one of those 40-below mornings in January when the sun, encircled by ice crystals and usurped by ominous sundogs on either side, puts in a dispirited, perfunctory performance.
Kind of like the Montreal Canadiens since 1993.
You’re still in your pyjamas, watching cartoons with your little brother and filling up on sugar-coated flakes, hard marshmallow bits or, if the cupboard is bare, tasteless puffed rice that makes your urine smell funny. Your mom is snoring in your parents’ bedroom down the hall and your dad, fresh off some unfathomable Friday night merriment, is turning the bathroom into a no-go zone for at least the next hour. You can’t remember anything like that ever happening in the annals of Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy.
Every 10 minutes or so, the cartoon worlds of Bugs Bunny, Huckleberry Hound and Mighty Mouse are interrupted by more intense, compressed time slots featuring a whole ’nother level of fantasy way more sinister than the plots of Boris and Natasha.
Realizing that the fastest way to our parents’ wallets was through our accumulation of cavities and first tentative steps toward developing diabetes in midlife, many of the brands of breakfast schlock that we ate in those days came with their own animated characters to entice us, like flies to Honeycomb. Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp.
There was of course Tony the Tiger, who, in the earliest segments I can recall, walked on all fours and had sharp claws. In his earliest commercials, Lucky the Leprechaun seemed to despise the kids who chased after him to steal his Lucky Charms cereal.
Toucan Sam advised us to always follow our nose (it always knows) to the flavour of Fruit Loops, a literally fruitless pursuit. For decades, the cereal-mad Trix Rabbit learned to accept the bitter truth that “Trix are for kids!” Silly rabbit.
Cap’n Crunch sailed the Guppy with Sea Dog and a cast of layabouts who came alive only when eating the captain’s cereal — “which never uncrunches, even in milk,” kind of like rebar, Lego and Deck-O-Foam.
Manipulated by Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry and a cast of Canadian Club-consuming Mad Men, we were assimilated into the Borg. Resistance was futile. Down the rabbit hole we plunged, as inevitably as Wile E. Coyote suddenly realizing that he’s run out of cliff.
Collectively, these snap, crackle, pop-culture characters — some of whom gained super strength from eating stuff that was super bad for us — constituted the equivalent of TikTok for baby boomers. Do you remember how Sugar Bear, voiced with the cool insouciance of a Bing Crosby impersonator, mopped the floor with a predatory crocodile after just a spoonful of his potent mix of glucose syrup, sugar honey, caramel colouring, more sugar, a bunch of chemical compounds synthesized from hairballs coughed up by cats and that green gloop found on the underside of manhole covers, oh, and more sugar?
Just a little spoon of your precious love satisfies my soul and makes the medicine go down. Now here I come to save the day!
The fable they were selling our parents — that this crap was somehow good for us or at least capable of shutting us up for 15 minutes — was grrrrrrrrrrrrreat. It was magically delicious. it was part of a complete breakfast, provided we also ate some real food. Maybe a raw wiener from the fridge. I liked to peel the skin off in one long string and down that first. If Mom ever noticed any were missing, she was too grossed out to say.
Now, at this point, you might reasonably assume (assuming you haven’t lost your lunch) that this is an essay about breakfast cereal lore, collector boxes, vintage ads, sixties icons … that sort of thing.
That would be perfectly reasonable, but it’s also at this point that I want to go vigorously Frosted Flaky with you. Cocoa Puffy and Grape-Nutty. Chilly Willy Penguin has left the igloo. Andy Panda has gone fishin’. Walter Lantz has abandoned the projector.
For imagine, if you will, that a Madison Avenue Trixter had had the budget and the derring-do to interrupt one of the cereal cartoons with another cast of characters advertising something even more sugary for our impressionable brains to get jiggy with.
Suppose said evil interloper had injected a set of Joe Camel-style cartoon characters to promote the use of, I don’t know, let’s call it tobacco. Not as farfetched as it might sound. Fred and Barney shilled for Winston Cigarettes on The Flintstones’ first season on ABC, sparking up and extolling the deadly blend: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”
Suppose someone (riffing on Barney Gumble or the intoxicated stork in a memorable Bugs Bunny episode, perhaps) then broke into the tobacco commercial for a hilarious animated take on getting drunk. Followed by another one (may I suggest a dormouse and hookah-smoking caterpillar?) on the thrills of being whacked out on pills.
Proceed in that direction, and pretty soon you’d have a series of nestling, vice-inducing matryoshka dolls. Ever so meta. Not to mention typical temptations in any North American high school. To an infinity of depressing adulthood addictions … and beyond!
I’ve long believed that there are parallels to be drawn, no pun intended and all joking aside, between falling into a depression and what it would be like to fall from one cartoon world into the next.
After all, each time you break on through to the other side in one of these commercial cartoon enterprises, every time you breach the fourth wall, there are two possible outcomes. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you emerge either dead or alive. The ultimate thought experiment … just like clinical depression.
See you in the funny pages.
I tried to capture, to use a scientific term plucked from the pages of Psychology Today, the Seasonal Affective Scooby-Dooby-Dooness of it all in a Through the Looking-Glass-inspired poem titled EAT ME in my 2020 live classic poetry book Mummy Jihad, glanced at and quickly discarded by literally tens of head-scratching friends and demoralized relatives.
The poem (scaling that fourth wall again) is about what it’s like to be depressed. And also death, but mostly about falling into a depression, a condition I figured my mother-in-law was suffering from at the time. It has a bit of a Lucky Charms flavour and goes like this:
Dozens and dozens and dozens of elves
cast candy-striped fish flies that spill from the shelves
jars of ORANGE MARMALADE made of ourselves
creating wish wells through waggly cells
and drop through the abyss
where dipterans delve
through the hourglass needle
that marks the main line
through the lank epidermis
mining crystals of rime.
Death says: a silver tongue is among us.
Unhitching and hitching, unstinting yet stalled
prams filled with eternity bump in the halls
and the mind that surrenders remembers them all
as the foam of the multiverse washes the walls
of the vertical needle
where chimney sweeps fall
munching on seed-cakes
Death says: slow juice masticates all flesh.
Bursting from fissures of gelatin rope
Death hennas the hollows and hallows the smoke
to cordon the vessels with pectin and choke
off the bustle of morphine, the dying man’s cloak.
Death’s a wheedling beadle
whose tweedle convokes
all his dozens of elves
to dismantle the shelves
and with black gnats and mayflies
fish marmalade wells.
Death says: drip drop drip drop drop drop drop.
Depressing as all get out, as I say. Still, I limned this night-piece, and it was my best!
I was poaching on the territory and culturally appropriating back then because I hadn’t personally experienced anything close to what the Buddhists call full-bore Constable Dudley Do-Wrongfulness at the time.
Funnily enough, that all changed when I was diagnosed with cancer, became severely sleep-deprived because I was up all night peeing every 10 minutes, and quickly wound up addicted to various antidepressants trotted out by a psychiatrist to see whether any of them would help.
Not that old trick again? “Nothing up my sleeve. … Presto. This time for sure.”
None of the pills worked and I’ve written about this elsewhere on this blog, so there’s no point rehashing old hash.
Long story short: I experienced a year of magical unthinking. After 12 months of intensive nuking and other invasive medical procedures, hiding from the sun, avoiding all social contact (not so different from a lot of people during the early innings of the pandemic) and lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did, I stayed up a bunch of nights in a row to break the evil leprechaun’s spell.
Talk about woke. I dispersed the cloud of esprit de corpse that had been hovering over me as if I were Joe Btfsplk in a Li’l Abner strip. Regained my usual devil-may-care equanimity. Learned to love the bomb and frequent urination. Thus the finely wrought specimen you read before you, eyes shimmering like milk-sodden Cheerios.
Yabba Dabba Doo!
The only pills I take these day are the ones that Mother gives me, and they don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice. When she’s ten feet tall.
The point I wanted to make (and somehow keep losing as the narrative thread snags on sewer grates) is that from my experience, which was easily remedied unlike the much deeper despair of real sufferers of real mental illness, being depressed is analogous to falling through one trapdoor after another, from one unfunny cartoon into a cartoon into a cartoon into a general state of unfunny, unreal cartoon consciousness. It’s a netherworld where none of the reassuring rules of logic and civilized society apply. Also no comforting laugh track. Sadly, gravity is still on the job.
While strictly a porridge man, ignorant of the delights of Eggo Waffle Blueberry Llama Loops and the like, Milton nails it pretty well in Paradise Lost in his description of Lucifer’s descent into Satanhood and all its attendant horrors:
Which way I fly is hell; my self am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
One man’s squealing is another man’s shore.
When seriously depressed, every time you descry a door hinge in the ceiling and start taking stock of your situation, plotting a possible escape, a lower deep opens wide.
As the eponymous heroine puts it in a Lewis Carroll classic you should know:
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the Earth.”
Faced with this dilemma, Alice Kingsleigh, the main protagonist in Tim Burton’s cinematic takes on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, eventually hits on a possible way out, certainly the one that worked for me:
From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole, I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.
Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, you do have that agency — and ultimately, this is precisely what you have to do to see the butterfly emerge. But the more cartoon worlds you fall into — curiouser and curiouser — the harder it is to break out of the chrysalis. It’s no use going back to yesterday, because you were a different person then.
Your story is a nightmare from which you are trying to awake. And you can.
Kahlil Gibran’s uplifting insight in The Prophet:
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the oven?
Th-th-th-that’s all there is to it, folks.
Still. If the cartoon-depression analogy doesn’t work for you, I have a major, major better one. A lot of people are saying this. People think it’s going to happen. Everybody’s talking about it. That’s just what I had heard. I’ve seen this, I’ve witnessed it. Believe me. By the way, I must tell you I’m doing very well. I have many, many friends. I never thought anything like this could happen in America.
(Pause for five seconds of Woody Woodpecker’s “Guess who!” and a ha-ha-ha-ha laugh.)
Just think of the master course we’ve been given in self-pity politics since The Donald descended that Trump Tower escalator in 2015 to fake applause from paid actors and announced what seemed like a risible, gimmicky presidential run initially designed only to promote the brand.
Every time you think you have a handle on the man’s cheat sheet — the nonconsensual kissing and pressing of genitals, the hush money payments to a porn star and Playboy Playmate of the Year, the collusion with Russia and kowtowing to the world’s worst war criminals (George W. Bush excepted), the attempt to coerce Ukraine into manufacturing dirt on Hunter Biden, the effort to pressure Georgia state officials not to certify Joe Biden’s victory, the thefts of classified documents and the half-baked endeavour to hide (and market?) them at Mar-a-Lago, the spearheading of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, the multimillion-dollar-fundraising scams by spreading baseless lies about voter fraud, the panicky venture to ward off felony indictments by dog-whistling white nationalists to rain down death and destruction, the increasingly overt racism and antisemitism amid the steady diet of outrageous lies and calumny on Fox News, Truth Social and other agitprop sites, etc. etc. — the slimy bandersnatch commits some new fresh outrage that diverts everyone’s focus from the last.
Down the Acme Corp. rabbit hole leap the mainstream media again. Ehh, what’s up, Don?
It’s an effective, WWE-inspired shtick that enables the former president to dominate American political discourse and suck all the air out of the room. As Susan B. Glasser observed in a piece last September in The New Yorker, “It’s easy to forget about the last controversy because, with Trump, you’re always onto the next one.”
You can bet your bottom dollar that Donald J. Trump already has his eyes on your bottom dollar. Only there is no bottom. No sense of shame. That’s J as in Jabberwocky. The jaws that bite. The claws that clutch. It’s a honky tonk parade. Merrie Melodies played in a penny arcade, only in this version the conniving Snidely J. Whiplash is waiting behind every trapdoor with a terrible combover and a fresh rope to tie his country-in-distress to the rail tracks. Rape America Straight Again.
According to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, 72 per cent of Republicans say Mafia Don has had a positive impact on their party and 79 per cent view themselves as part of his MAGA movement. Looney Tunes walk among us. Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp, Sugar Crisp, Sugar Crisp. Two scoops of treason in a package of Kellogg’s Republican brand.
Hello my baby. Hello my honey. Hello darkness, my old friend.
It’s not hard to imagine (in fact, it’s hard not to imagine) the ever-evolving supporting cast of cartoon characters inhabiting Trump World — Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Cohen, Joe Tacopina, Kelly Anne Conway, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Melania, Don Jr., Eric, Ivana, Ivanka, all of whose faces appear to have been hastily slapped together from masking tape and wizened apple core — donning antebellum straw hats and joyfully tossing canes while marching to their über alles anthem. No more rehearsing or nursing a part. We know every part by heart.
Personally, I find the diagnosis of Trumpism as a particularly virulent form of manic depression, a cartoon within a cartoon within a cartoon, more trenchant, more explanatory, than 90 per cent of the political commentary I read or see on TV.
Off with their talking heads!
We’re all mad here. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Any idea where Mom hid the Fruity Pebble Cinnamon Toast Crunch Honey Smack Golden Graham Coco Krispie Reese’s Puffs?