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Black Lamb

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Monkey see, monkey do

March 1st, 2007

BY ED GOLDBERG

I recently saw a news photo in The New York Times of a miserably poor town in what was once a fairly prosperous Latin American country: tumble-down shanties, garbage and sewage in the streets, pretty grim. monkeyseemonkeydoBut that was not what grabbed my attention. Hanging from the electrical wires pictured in the photo were strings of sneakers. Now here in the USA, for at least forty years, there have been athletic shoes hung from the wires. I have no idea where or when this phenomenon started. Or why.

There are many explanations available, none of which makes much sense, except that it is a manifestation of bullying. (Not a gang sign or a marker for drug activity. The phenomenon existed long before the current gang/drug culture.) The weakest, dorkiest or fattest kid got his US Keds tied together and launched over the wires. With the price of sneakers what it is now, this can be a financial hardship.

(One small bit of civic pride. Here in Portland, home of high-quality eccentricity and creative nonsense, one may see conjoined spike heels or dog booties or baby shoes dangling from wires. No received wisdom here in Little Beirut. One town’s bullying is another’s artistic statement.)

Allegedly, there is a military tradition of painting one’s combat boots yellow(!) or orange and slinging them over a wire when leaving a theater of operations. Yeah, maybe. But, I don’t know if this has influenced the sneaker thing, or vice-versa.

What amazed me is that it took place in a country thousands of miles from the mainland USA. How, where did these kids come across this odd behavior? I have no trouble believing that they appropriated the stupid ritual. After all, it’s American, it’s destructive, and it’s ugly. I just can’t figure out how they discovered it.

This calls to mind the urban legend known as the Hundredth Monkey Effect, first popularized by Lyall Watson in 1979, who claimed that it came from behavioral scientists observing the actions of macaques (or “macaca,” if you’re a former senator from Virginia) on the Japanese island of Koshima. The claim is that some of the monkeys, who were fed sweet potatoes by the scientists, learned to wash them. Other monkeys saw this and copied the behavior. At some point, the mythical “hundredth monkey” learned it, and a cosmic tipping point turned a learned behavior into a cultural imperative, even spreading magically to macaques on other islands.

Whoa! So, like, when the thousandth, or whatever, dimwit learned to festoon the wires with sneakers, it, like, became part of the Jungian collective unconscious.

Wow, far out!

Except that it never happened.

Skeptics went back to the original 1952 macaque study, and no such phenomenon was described, no such claim was made. Whatever Lyall was smoking, avoid it. This is New Age mental masturbation of the worst kind.

Okay, then, so how did the sneaker thing make it to Latin America, or wherever else it appears on this planet? Um, I dunno.

I suppose that somewhere there is a doctoral thesis or two about the emergence and spread of fads. They have been with us at least since I was a kid, when mastodons stalked the earth in search of hula-hoops. One of several websites, crazyfads.com, lists many of them, including flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing. But, long before that, Bach wrote a cantata about the coffee fad in Germany (BWV211, libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici). ’Twas ever thus, I guess.

But in a larger sense, what compels us to participate? We are all, at some level, searching for acceptance. Whether it is the teenage herd instinct, or wanting to seem hip or “with it,” or just for something to talk about around the water cooler, fads and catch phrases (verbal fads) provide us with common, shared cultural phenomena.

I can already feel my lack of interest in modern pop culture making a difference, albeit a meaningless one. For example, I have never seen American Idol, Survivor, Sex in the City, or Grey’s Anatomy. I’m not a snob; I watch plenty of television, just not these shows, which seem to be cultural touchstones. When I read the personality/gossip column in the newspaper, I skip through most of it because I have no idea who they are talking about. You’d have to be dead not to have heard of Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, but who the hell is Nick Lachey? Jessica Simpson? (No relation to Bart and Lisa, I’m sure.) Or another dead rapper? Yawn. John Donne was wrong. No one except the victim is diminished by these deaths, although being murdered is a career move for some of these guys.
And I have long since stopped caring what happens in pro football or basketball, or their college equivalents. If I were still employed in an office (heaven forfend!), I’d not have a goddamn thing to talk about.

Feels good, really.

Again, I have plenty of “far out” and “cool, man” in my personal history. But, I say with pride, none of these: sock it to me, or here come the judge, or talk to the hand, or I’m like…, or excu-u-u-use me! I don’t own a macarena record or wear my baseball cap sideways. No “baby on board” signs in my car. Okay, no babies, but still….

In the few areas of my life where I have been way ahead of the crowd (Jean Shepherd, Louisiana cooking, the Velvet Underground, klezmer, baseball memorabilia) everyone eventually caught up to some degree. I am no longer driven to find these new thrills, although I am still open to novelty.

And I am still amused by really funny or odd fads, in a Puckian what-fools-these-mortals-be way. They are mostly harmless, and the herd instinct is still strong in the species. If I didn’t have to listen to the music, disco was a hoot: the clothes, the self-involved preening, the empty glitter. Basically the debased coin of the Sixties culture. Or the pseudo-country line dance fad. Not much has been that diverting, certainly not hip-hop or NASCAR, since then.

Well, it’s time to put on my Davy Crockett coonskin cap, load my Josh Groban eight-track into my quad stereo, do the Lambada (the forbidden dance), and teach ninety-nine monkeys to wash sweet potatoes. I wonder what would happen if I put them at ninety-nine typewriters?

Probably next month’s column. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Goldberg | Link to this Entry

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