Thank You to Infinity (and What About that Cream of Wheat Box?)

I am honored that my friends at the Zero Aggression Project liked my blog post about them enough to republish it on their site, with my enthusiastic permission. Thanks, guys.

I’m wondering, though: By linking to their version of my article, which includes a link back to my original post, am I being immodestly self-referential? Or simply recursive to no real purpose?

Actually, there’s a purpose: Play.

I used to play a lot when I was on Facebook. “Play” for me has always been largely a mental activity, word- and idea-based. A serious but short-lived attempt to learn to play tennis during my twenties, and my recent taking up of the ukulele, are the main exceptions that come to mind.

Facebook lent itself to playfulness in a way that writing a blog doesn’t, for some reason.

However, be warned: This post is completely playful, and horribly self-referential. At the end you may go, “What did I just read?” and “Well, that’s ___ minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”

I once dated a woman who laughed at teenagers for using “go” as I just did. “So he goes … So she goes …,” she would say mockingly. She frequently did her mocking at McDonald’s, where there were plenty of teenagers around for source material.

I met her at a McDonald’s, in fact. We were sitting at nearby tables and she spoke first. “Are you married?” she asked. Just like that. When I said no, she asked, “Would you like to go out some time?”

I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, she was actually a very beautiful woman. Oh, that’s not what you’re thinking? Well, yes, she was crazy. And she had other problems. The fact that the Big Book of AA was literally the only book she owned should have been a tip-off.

Another time I dated a woman who owned a coffee-table book about the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and that was her only book, as far as I could tell. That relationship didn’t last long, either.

But what I really wanted to talk about was Cream of Wheat.

We were a cold-cereal-for-breakfast kind of family when I was growing up. I never even had oatmeal until I was out and on my own. This was because my mother was forced to eat oatmeal as a child and she hated it.

We did have grits from time to time, of course. But as for things like Cream of Wheat, “that’s just something Yankees eat,” my mother assured us.

Thinking about recursion reminded me of a classic story involving Cream of Wheat. The story has been around for years and even appeared in books about left brain/right brain thinking and about deficiencies in the education system. Now I’m wondering if the story has any basis in fact.

The story is this:

A sixth-grade teacher asked if anyone in the class could define infinity. Billy’s hand shot up and when the teacher called on him, he said, “Infinity is like the Cream of Wheat man.”

The teacher, exasperated, berated the boy for clowning around and not being serious. Billy felt crushed and humiliated.

But Billy was being serious, and imaginative in a way that was lost on his dullard of a teacher. As he later explained to a classmate, on the Cream of Wheat box there’s a picture of a man holding a Cream of Wheat box, which shows a picture of a man holding a Cream of Wheat box, and so on forever and ever, even if you can’t see it anymore.

I’ve always loved that story. But what if it’s not true, and can’t be true?

Cream of Wheat has been around a long time, and its box has gone through many iterations, as have its ads. There are tons of pictures of the things on the web. So far I haven’t been able to find a single image that shows a box with the Cream of Wheat man holding a box of Cream of Wheat (etc.). He’s usually holding a bowl of the stuff — a single bowl, not bowls to infinity.

I did find this ad (at right) where he’s holding a Cream of Wheat box, but if you squint you can see that the picture on the box has him holding that ubiquitous but stubbornly non-recursive bowl.

Funny thing is, I remember the Cream of Wheat box being just as little Billy described, infinite boxes and all. But who am I to say? Not being a Yankee, I didn’t encounter one that often. (Why was it on the shelves of our grocery stores in deep Alabama, though?)

If any of my readers can point me to an image of a Cream of Wheat box with the recursive Cream of Wheat man that I and the possibly apocryphal little Billy remember, I would appreciate it. But please, don’t say anything about this to the Mandela Effect nutjobs!

While you’re at it, if you could find a clip of Barbara Feldon (aka Agent 99) singing “The Codfish Ball” on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, that would be great. I don’t consider the Internet complete without it.

Meanwhile, at least I have the dreaming Sluggo to illustrate the same idea (see top of this post). However, Sluggo leads me down alleyways of dark thoughts that the Cream of Wheat man never could. For instance: Am I responsible, if only in a contributory way, for the death of a great American artist?

Back in the day, I wrote many letters to the editors of the newspapers in Birmingham. I assume most people still know what those are. Letters to the editor, I mean. Well, newspapers too. But maybe not.

On Quora the other day someone asked, “What exactly are Letters to the Editor in a newspaper?” Someone else, who apparently has more time on his hands than good sense (someone whose Facebook account was closed, maybe?), did attempt to provide an answer, as you can see here.

Most of my letters to the editor were on politics and other serious topics. But being in a playful mood one day, I fired off one that read, in its entirety, “Does anyone actually find the comic strip ‘Nancy’ funny?” It annoyed me that “Nancy” (which had Sluggo as one of the characters) was so easy to read that I couldn’t avoid it, but I never found it remotely amusing.

The paper didn’t run my letter, but a short while later it announced that it was dropping “Nancy.”

One of my friends at the time took this quite badly. He confessed to me that he had always had certain thoughts about Nancy’s Aunt Fritzi. This was from a 35-year-old man, by the way.

A short time after that, Ernie Bushmiller, the artist who drew “Nancy,” died. Obituaries noted that the number of newspapers carrying the strip had been steadily declining. What if the loss of the Birmingham paper, for which I may be to blame, was the final blow to his health and will to live?

It made me feel even worse to learn later that I had completely misunderstood Bushmiller and the art that was “Nancy.” As comics theorist (how does one get that job?) Scott McCloud has written:

Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy is a landmark achievement: A comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the ‘gag-strip’; a sense of humor so obscure, so mute, so without malice as to allow faithful readers to march through whole decades of art and story without ever once cracking a smile. Nancy is Plato’s playground. Bushmiller didn’t draw A tree, A house, A car. Oh, no. Ernie Bushmiller drew THE tree, THE house, THE car.

Also see Confessions of a Nancy Addict, which includes the tidbit that Andy Warhol was a great fan, as well. (And here’s some more Nancy deconstructionism.)

Bringing all this to mind again, I go, “I’m bad, so bad.” And the universe reflects my darkest thoughts back to me, in an infinite loop, and goes: “Enjoy your Cream of Wheat.”