Saturday, March 20, 2010

OBITUARY: Mr. Peanut 1916 - 2010

We all have our little things. My uncle didn't like to touch fish. My girlfriend doesn't like to touch me. And when I see that Planters company logo, that half-breed mascot, I have to control an involuntary impulse to tear off my clothes and run screaming down the street. My photo-receptors send a telegraph to my sphincter. Attention, something here is "not right." Fight or flight. It's automatic, like how you react when you put a big gob of bad egg salad on your tongue. The internal meter flashes: REJECT.

Mr. Peanut has always represented something more to me. I know. He's lovable. An icon really. A dandy, continental legume-about-town. But it's sorta like having to look at Fred Astaire after he misused Jeff Goldblum's telepod from "The Fly." Oops. "I brought my snacks in there with me, didn't I?" And we're supposed to act like nothing happened to him?

No. He's an abomination. And more. Mr. Peanut is "that thing" which we cannot put our collective finger upon. The great unknown. He is undefinable.

This all started when I was a kid. Four years old. I remember sitting on the floor in the middle of my family's wood-paneled den. Fireplace on one side. Built-in bookshelves on the other. One direction a hallway leads to the bedrooms. One direction the kitchen and garage. My parents just put in new carpeting. Orange and white and green. High shag. Beautiful. A nice 1974 color scheme that matched the telephones, the refrigerator and the oven. There's no furniture in the room. Funny, no one is home. I sense this. Just as I realize I'm all alone, Mr. Peanut steps into my view. He stands in the door to the kitchen. He's watching me.

That's all I remember. I get goosebumps when I type it. Probably just my first vivid nightmare. Something internal tells me that it's significant though. Significant to me.

The undefinable has defined ME.

Today, the whole scared-of-Mr.-Peanut thing is kind of a joke. Or at least I've morphed it into that to cope. Now it's like my talisman. A battle scar. A fear I conquered. I bet you know people who don't like clowns. If a clown came on TV, they'd shout, "Agh! Turn that off!" Clowns, Glenn Beck, Kirstie Alley. The revulsion all comes from the same place.

I even collect Mr. Peanut memorabilia to prove I'm not scared. But not so much these days. I still like getting Mr. Peanut presents from friends though. And I know most people put away these remnant neuroses from childhood. But again and again, usually at transitional or difficult times in my life, I pause to ponder it.

There was a time in college when I became extremely depressed. I had broken up with my first "true love." Really my first anything. At the same time, I realized I wasn't getting the education I bargained for. So this was college? Turned out to be a giant shake-down operation. Pay up front, get in the country club later. Now if I was going to be a doctor, that's one thing, but I wanted to be a writer. I fell in love with the power of ideas in high school. I wanted to move someone. Make them feel. Enlighten them with my unique perspective. I had read some great stuff. And it affects you. Inspires you. But after three years of college, I learned, and still believe, writing is just a technical skill. Once you learn the tools, then really it's only a matter of repeatedly putting them to use. Learn on the job. And I did that for a time at the student newspaper. Unfortunately, I was too emotionally immature to last there for long. I didn't play well with others. Yes, that is the real education. Who knew? So I neglected my studies. I tried to finish school, but felt out of place in class. Like an outsider. We'd be doing some boring, pointless exercise in futility and I'd be like "Hey, been there, done that. I want to get my life STARTED. I want to GET PAID now." Now I know, 25 years later, it turns out boring, pointless exercises in futility IS life. I should have been a doctor.

So my life was in turmoil. Before I left the student paper in a huff, I wrote a piece about my old chum Mr. Peanut for the editorial page. It was indulgent. Much like this screed, but it was fun I guess. Then I left school. Took a job and pondered religion. Hey, I'll find out about life's grandiosity now. Nope. Religion seemed like a big Ponzi scheme to me. I quit the job and took out some more loans and went back to school. I did well for a time. I was glad to be back in the not-ready-for-prime-time existence.

And I met another girl in class. We hit it off. She took charge. Good. I was gun-shy after my first breakup two years before. She was a new-age girl. There was even a popular song then about people like her: "I got a new age girlfriend (Tell me what she's like)..."

One day at her house I saw she had a copy of a book called "Communion" by Whitley Strieber. They made a movie of it with Christopher Walken. Seen it? It's good. But at the time, I didn't know anything about the story. The cover art was done by artist Ted Seth Jacobs and it compelled me in a major way. It was a face of an alien. A "gray" as they're sometimes called. The face had big eyes. Scary, intelligent, indifferent eyes. A big head. Skinny neck. I vaguely remembered seeing it years before at a grocery store and doing a double take, but moved on.

"Can I borrow this?" I asked.


Soon I would be sleeping with the light on for what I think was like a week. Because, not since Bram Stoker's "Dracula" had I read something as horrifying and expertly crafted as this tale. No wonder it was a huge bestseller.

Let me ask you something? Have you ever heard about the phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley? Or how about the idea of Screen Memories? What about Pupaphobia? Learning about these exciting new concepts thrilled me, but had I known that my fear of Mr. Peanut would soon get worse, I would have stopped reading and gone to bed. But "Communion" is a book you read in one sitting. I can't turn down a good spooky story.

Strieber says his work is non-fiction. Most people just assume he is either a crackpot or a guy who figured out a wonderful marketing scheme. Probably a bit of both. In it, Strieber boards the aliens' flying saucer several times throughout his whole life. He communicates with a variety of alien beings and is subjected to the dreaded anal probe.

Tell me why these aliens care about our poop so much. Are they from the future? Did they run out of Hot Pockets? This is research right? Anal probes? Come on! That's SO five minutes ago.

Anyway, Strieber says that after the invasive procedures and harrowing kidnappings, they were nice enough to cover their tracks and implant false Screen Memories in his brain. These were supposed to help pacify his warped mind so he could keep living and keep doing their Hot Pocket research.

A Screen Memory swaps the horrific with reassuring and positive imagery. But hypnosis uncovered them. That's why so many of Strieber's memories seemed puzzling to him. Like driving on a highway and coming upon twenty or so rabbits in the middle of the road. Those weren't rabbits were they? Nope. Aliens

And here's the clincher, as a child, Strieber remembers being terrified as a little boy by the appearance of Mr. Peanut, and yet he knew that he never saw Mr. Peanut except on a Planters can. He says he remembers being menaced by Mr. Peanut at a Battle of Flowers Parade in San Antonio. He explains that after hypnosis, he now realizes it was an implanted Screen Memory.

I had no idea Mr. Peanut was going to pop up in this mix.

So, I'm reading this, it's about 9:30 p.m. and I look up on the wall of my bedroom. There's the painting I made of Mr. Peanut when I was about 16. It's a weird one. He's dancing in the dark foggy dew of a farm setting near a black barn. The full moon shines above.

I then have a panic attack and whip the book across the room. It hits the wall and slides down into a dirty pile of laundry.

I call this girl over and read her the Peanut passage from the book. I show her the painting. I show her the article I wrote for the student paper.

Well, she's already susceptible to alternative realities, so I have convinced her that I am an alien abductee.

"Me too," she says.

One half of me WANTS to believe it and now I think the other half just wanted to woo the girl, maybe see if I could get a handle on her OWN Screen Mammaries.

But alas, our stormy relationship was merely two anal probes passing in the night.

Since she didn't really live on this planet, she apparently didn't feel like she had to act like a human.

She ran around on me. She found this other guy who met Bigfoot. They went camping with this other man from Atlantis. I hope they're happy.

Dubious or not, I still slept with my light on for weeks. Fear. Weirdness. Anxiety. School suffered. I suffered. Poverty. Gave too much plasma for the amount of Hot Pockets I was consuming. Bad chemistry. I was again dissatisfied with life. Where am I going? Mr. Peanut, you're getting on my nerves.

Comedian Dan Aykroyd - a fellow alien abductee buff - also helped me shed some light on this weird fear of harmless mascots in his movie "Ghostbusters." Remember? The evil Gozer tells the Ghostbusters to choose the form of their final foe in a battle to save New York. He can't help but think of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man?

"Sorry guys, it just kind of popped in there. I couldn't help it."

And this whole Uncanny Valley business sounds like my deal too.

It's a hypothesis you hear about with robotics or sophisticated computer animation. It predates that though. The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. Some say they experienced this when they see those fancy new Japanese robots. The lady ones. Or when they saw the movies "The Polar Express" or "Beowulf." Maybe Mr. Peanut was just some guy in an outfit I saw at a mall.

And finally, a more serious mental health disorder is called Pupaphobia. This phobia is an overwhelming, irrational fear of puppets. The person coping with this phobia may also fear marionettes and team mascots. Perhaps the pupaphobic person fears the puppet’s exaggerated features or its disjointed, bizarre movements. Although puppets are dead objects, they invoke this fear. I've read that puppets were used to represent the dead at one time and myths surrounding that practice could be the source of these fears.

So now it's 17 years later. I just got a great job in a new direction. Things are really looking up for me. It has been some of the darkest times for me in this last year. I quit a going-nowhere job I had for over 10 years. I've learned what I want to do with the short time I have left on this planet.

I do hereby purge myself of this silly cycle to substitute Mr. Peanut for my what ails me. It's a phony flight mechanism. Time to get rewired.

It's my MacGuffin. That's what they call it. Like the great film director Alfred Hitchcock would explain, a MacGuffin is a a plot device. It's the THING everybody wants in a movie but can't get. It's inconsequential to the story, but keeps the character dynamics moving along. And for me, it may have been useful in the beginning of my movie, but people are squirming in their seats and want to go home.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Mr. MacGuffin Peanut.

Director John Huston used this device in the Humphrey Bogart movie "The Maltese Falcon." When asked what the source of everyone's woes was - a bird statue - private dick Sam Spade explains, "The stuff dreams are made of."

Why do we use MacGuffins. Do you have a Mr. Peanut? A thing you hang your fears upon?

No matter. This question is not important to me anymore.

People in the here and now are what I care about. THIS is reality.

All mental tangents leading to the EXIT sign are pointless, so I must tell you, I'm glad Mr. Peanut's dead. It's a legumicide long overdue. And the aliens? Well, you know it. WE are the aliens.

"We have met the enemy and he is us." - Walt Kelly said that.

"Don't tread water in your nightmares. You'll leave nothing in your wake." - I said that.

And one more thing...try not to go nuts.

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