October 1, 2014

Essay: Sea-Monkey Necklace by R.J. Fox

  R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood.
     His work has been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, Lap Top Lit Mag, The Path, Contemporary Literary Review India, Yareah Magazine, One Title Magazine, The Knotted Beard Review, Bareback, The Zodiac Review, Fortunates, Randomly Accessed Poetics, Wordsmiths, Toska, Enhance, Common Line Journal, Cold Noon, Miracle e-Zine, Shadows Express, The Rusty Nail, Airplane Reading, Untapped Cities, The Lyceum, L’Allure des Mots, Awesome Online, Hackwriters, Litlover, Vine Leaves, Death Throes, Writer’s World Journal, Tenement Block Review, Unchartered Frontier, Wordsmiths Online, The Commonline Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitcsch, Wordplay, Five 2 One, The Wordsmith Journal TravelMag, inTravel Magazine, Dearborn Times-Herald, and Detroit News.
     He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival in Canton, MI.
     Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
     In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI
 Sea-Monkey Necklace

Looking back, it’s no surprise that I was bullied. I’m not saying I deserved it. However, I certainly didn’t help my cause.

My elementary school social standing left much to be desired, to say the least. I was a nerd and a dork (labels I now look back at with pride). Back then, however, pride wasn’t even in my vocabulary. When you are small for your age and picked last in gym class (even picked after sloths and paraplegics), there really isn’t much hope. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when even other nerds pick on you. When you’re a nerd trying to climb the social ladder, surrounding yourself with other nerds doesn’t exactly help your cause. By the same token, nerds tend to gravitate to other nerds. It’s a perpetual catch-22.

From time to time, I fancy myself building a time machine, so I could go back in time and kick my own ass. Or at the very least tell my childhood self a thing or two. Things like: “don’t start out the school year sporting a Sea-Monkey necklace.” For those (unfortunate) few who are in the dark about Sea-Monkeys, they are a hybrid form of slickly-packaged brine shrimp that hatch instantly after adding water and are most commonly found in the science section at Toys ‘R Us, next to Magic Rocks and Ant Farms (two other early childhood hobbies that did nothing to boost my popularity). Invented (or, more accurately “marketed”) in 1957 by Harold von Brauhut (one year before Milton Levine put ant farms on the map), Sea-Monkeys roughly resemble enlarged sperm, growing to about 1-2 inches in length and certainly looking nothing like the way they are portrayed on their packaging – long-limbed, mythical creatures with a long, dragon-like tail and three horns coming out of their head. Despite their name, they don’t resemble a monkey at all, but rather like a cross between a mermaid and a fetus. Like Ms. Pac-Man, females are depicted with a pretty bow across their horns.

Like legions of other boys, I first discovered Sea-Monkeys advertised on the back of comic books, or in the Johnson-Smith Company catalog – a company specializing in novelty and gag gifts like fake poop and snapping gum (I still get their catalog today). My first experience with Sea-Monkeys was in the first grade, when I received a deluxe Sea-Monkey kit for Christmas, after begging for them for months. For some reason, I was fixated. Of course, I naturally assumed that they would just like how they look on their package, so my excitement was understandable, but disappointment quickly followed. Despite my initial disappointment, my interest in Sea-Monkeys never waned. Perhaps, I was just hopeful that someday, they would live long enough to grow into the image of them depicted on the packaging.

Credit: Transcience Corporation
Included in my starter kit was the traditional, plastic aquarium (which still looks the same today). It also comes with three small, color-coded, numbered packets: Packet #1 contained “Sea-Monkey Water Purifier.”  Packet #2 contained, “Sea-Monkey Instant Life” (aka eggs). Packet #3 contained “Sea-Monkey Growth Food.” It seemed like such a small amount of food and I wondered what I would do when it ran out.  I eventually learned that Sea-Monkeys don’t live that long.

The kit included a double-sided spoon for feeding purposes. One side for baby Sea-Monkeys; the other for adults. It also included a “Sea-Monkey Million-Bubble Air Pump” that allowed fresh oxygen to be manually popped into the water. It could also be used to suck up debris and corpses of fallen comrades. 

Eager to hatch my new pets, I filled up the tank and added the “Water Purifier,” at which point I was quickly disappointed to discover that there was a 24-hour waiting period before the eggs could be added. Fortunately, I had the distraction of other Christmas gifts to keep my mind occupied. I wasn’t so fortunate in subsequent rounds of Sea-Monkey hatching. The wait to bring new life into the world was excruciating.

The time had finally come to add the Instant Life packet to the water (spilling at least a quarter of the contents onto the counter), at which point I was required to stir with a spoon for a full minute, setting forth in motion the miracle of life. After mixing my Sea-Monkey cocktail, I peered into the tank, but failed to locate any sign of life through the murky water filled with various debris and particles. The legitimacy of the whole ordeal was brought into question. But after following my dad’s suggestion to hold the tank up to the window and into the light, I slowly, but surely, noticed a hundred or so tiny, swimming specks, which were even more evident when seen through the numerous bubble magnifying glasses on the side of the tank. Instant Life indeed. After a few days, I no longer needed to find them through the magnifying glass. They grow up so quickly!

            Within a couple of weeks, they grew to about ½ inch in size. Eventually, they reached up to ¾ in length and I was hopeful that it was only a matter of time before they would blossom into the handsomely drawn caricatures on the package. But I was quickly proven wrong. Not only did they not grow as large as I would have guessed (the small tank should have been a dead giveaway), they looked absolutely nothing like their playful, carefree depiction as evident form the packaging. In fairness, they did have long tails and horns on their heads, but it still begged the question: at what point does false advertising come into play? 

Another disappointing discovery I made early on was the rapid decline in Sea-Monkey population. What started out as around 100 living creatures was quickly cut in half. Were  they sick? I wondered. Days later, the Sea-Monkey apocalypse was reduced to a baker’s dozen. The only upside to a smaller population was that I could give them names, such as Muffin, Cupcake, Cheesecake, Biff, Bert, Ernie, and Chet).  

Not only did they have names, they quickly developed personalities (at least in my mind). Some were playful. Some were moody. Some were social. Some stuck to themselves. Some were horny. In fact, my first lessons in sex ed were from my Sea-Monkeys, where I discovered that males are usually more horny than females. And unlike the efficiency of human mating (especially for males) that I learned later in life, Sea-Monkey mating could last for several days (on a side note, like mating, Sea-Monkey bowel movements are also multi-day affairs. A long string of poo appears from their tail, following their producer’s every movement until the laws of physics caused it to break off, joining the debris field down below).

Back onto the topic of mating, all the male Sea-Monkey has to do is clasp on to the root of the female’s tail, using the “whisker” like graspers under their chins. If the female doesn’t manage to shake him off, the couple swam in connected unison for days on end (no thrusting or humping to see here!) until the process was over, culminating in the arrival of an egg sack on top of the female’s tail (Although, some females actually have the ability to produce an egg sack without the help of a male at all!)

On a related note, males were also prone to physical acts of aggressions with their competition (which actually resembles human mating far more than Sea-Monkey mating). The winner of the fight wins the girl. Just like in the old days of human courtship.

Following the formation of the egg sack, the gestation period can last for several days, or even weeks, before new babies appeared. Most never survived. Unlike their parents, who were born into purified water, these babies never stood a chance. Their poor little lungs were forced to withstand too much debris in the form of feces and the rotting carcasses of their fallen brethren.

Eventually, even adult Sea-Monkeys are eventually unable to handle their polluted environment (it never of occurred to me to clean their tank) and slowly begin to die off one by one, until there were none. But death is not the end. Sea-Monkeys, like Jesus, have the magical ability to “resurrect”. All that is required a great deal of patience.. The secret was to let all the water evaporate – a process that took several weeks, making it even more excruciating than the waiting period prior to hatching.  When the water is finally completely gone (leaving a nasty, stinking debris field in its wake), you simply add more water and voila! Instant life. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Despite the illusion that Sea-Monkeys turn into Sea-Zombies, in reality, the babies came from unhatched eggs, lying on the surface of the tank. Sadly, these babies weren’t long for this earth, dying within a couple of days of their short-lived resurrection, making them both a miracle and a let-down in juxtapositional equal measure. Incidentally, just as Sea-Monkeys marked my first experience with sex and reproduction, Sea-Monkeys also marked my first experience with death.

I learned this resurrection trick (and many others!) in the nifty instruction manual included in the package, which went to great lengths to further cement the mystique and endless appeal of the whole Sea-Monkey universe, living up to their “Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys!” moniker on the packaging.

For example, who knew that Sea-Monkeys loved performing for an audience? Furthermore, they could perform an array of magic tricks. Trick No. 1, as described in the manual is called “Sea-Monkey Hypnotism”, which involves shining a flashlight at their tank in a dark room. As you move the flashlights, the Sea-Monkeys will follow the beam of a light, as though in a trance.

Trick #2 is called “Acrobatic Sea-Monkeys.” The trick involves leaving your Sea-Monkeys in a dark room for several minutes, before turning on a bright light. Then, watch them dance! In this case, dancing means, twirling and spinning in circles as they adjusted to the bright light suddenly forced upon them without warning.

Another exciting form of entertainment was putting on an Electric “Sea-Show,” requiring nothing more than a blank wall and a flashlight, resulting in a Sea-Monkey shadow show that not only make your aquatic pets look ginormous … but as close in appearance to the package as they could possible get in terms of both size and shape. Now it all made sense. It wasn’t as much as an exaggeration as I had thought! I would often go to bed at night with Sea-Monkey shadows swimming by my side. My Sea-Monkey dreamscape!

Another featured item in the manual is the promise of the “Great Sea-Monkey Baseball Game.”  According to the manual, “Believe it or not, Sea-Monkeys make great ballplayers! In fact, the United State Government awarded Patent No. 3,853,317 to Harold Braunhut for his invention … that lets them play nine innings of real baseball – hits, runs, errors and all!” You can actually request a copy of the patent itself, along with a “long, detailed articles all about this amazing new aquatic sport!” I never actually requested one, which is odd considering how big of a baseball fan I am. Furthermore, this parent has been pending for at least 30 years. I’m assuming another 30 is quite likely, as everyone awaits not only a patent, but the evolution of the species itself into something capable of playing a human sport.

Sea-Monkeys, are indeed, a most playful creature. At the back of the manual is a long list of items that can be mail-ordered and sent directly to your doorstep!  One of the items I ordered (for just one dollar! … plus shipping and handling) were “Sea-Monkey Sea-Diamonds (the Anti-Gravity ‘Toy’).” They came in a small packet similar to the Grown Food and Instant Life and contained small, plastic pebbles designed to look like diamonds. After dumping them into the water, they begin to float at various levels of suspension. In theory, Sea-Monkeys would supposedly have a field day with them, tossing them back and forth like beach balls, playing soccer, or even surfing on them. In reality, the Sea-Monkeys ignore them, coming into contact with them only by accident…sometimes even resulting in their death, crushed beneath a Sea-Diamond.

Other items I ordered throughout the years included Cupid’s-Arrow Mating Powder, Grow-Kwickly Sea-Monkey Growth Stimulator, Red-Magic Sea-Monkey Vitamins, Sea- Medic Sea-Monkey Medicine, and Sea-Monkey Banana Treat (a banana-scented powder… because, what monkeys don’t loves bananas?), I was obsessed.

 There are several other accessories one can get for their Sea-Monkeys, if so inclined, many of which I owned (or still own). Several alternative aquariums are (still) offered in the catalog, including a lighted one, the “Electric Ocean-Zoo Showboat”, featuring multi-colored lights, and “Executive Sea-Monkeys for Grown-Ups” (a “gold”-plated tank).

One of the lowlights I experienced with Sea-Monkey accessories was the Sea-Monkey tequarium – a vinyl, collapsible tank featuring a desert landscape that promptly leaked out the entire contents of its water once I attempted to pour my Sea-Monkeys into it, leaving them to perish on the faux desert sand. This was actually one of two tragic Sea-Monkey incidents – the second one the result of my cousin accidentally knocking the tank over onto my bedroom floor.  I tried to vain to pick up them up off of the floor, but apparently, they can’t survive more than five seconds out of water. I’m guessing their miniscule size might have something to do with this.

After realizing that the teqarium was not fit for Sea-Monkeys, it didn’t stop me from later using it as a domicile for a chameleon and later, a hermit crab – both of which were therefore deprived from their instinctual urge to climb. I later noticed that this item was removed from the catalog in later years.

Then, there was the great sport of Sea-Monkey racing, which consisted of a white, plastic racetrack, which was essentially a chunk of plastic with a groove running through the middle. At the front of the groove was a little plastic flag, which served as a gate (which I once accidentally severed a hapless Sea-Monkey in half with). Once you loaded the Sea-Monkeys in front of the gate, it was off to the races! The Sea-Monkeys would charge down the groove until they reached the other end, much akin to sperm. Since it was next to impossible to keep track of which Sea-Monkey was which, it was impossible to keep track of who won, taking away any sense of competition. There are several reasons Sea-Monkey racing isn’t exactly a betting sport. So even though there were no clear losers in Sea-Monkey racing, the mere act of participating made me an honorary one.

Last, but not least, was the Sea-Monkey necklace. And by necklace, I don’t mean a medallion resembling a Sea-Monkey. What I mean is, an actual miniature plastic bubble hanging from a red string that you can place a few of your Sea-Monkeys into and carry around town (or, in my case, school). Despite constant teasing (from classmates and teachers alike), I naturally convinced myself that they were jealous and/or didn’t know a fashion statement when they saw one. Why the ladies didn’t flock is something I’ll never be able to figure out! Wearing it, I was felt an overwhelming sense of protection. As a result, I kept it on at all times, which in turn prompted even further bullying. It was a vicious cycle. I even attempted to wear it during gym class – the epicenter of bullying. However, my gym teacher – between snickers – wisely asked me to keep it in my locker. This mandate was extended to the swimming pool, as well, sparing my pets from being poisoned by chlorine in the process.

My insistence on wearing a Sea-Monkey necklace begs a logical question (well, probably several questions): What kind of parents would send their son to school wearing a necklace filled with Sea-Monkeys? And how is that not child abuse? Come to think of it, my parents certainly didn’t help my cause on several occasions. But, looking back, I am eternally grateful that they didn’t force me to leave my necklace at home, just as I’m grateful that – during that same year – they didn’t talk me out of buying the Beastie Boys “License to Ill” album when they would have preferred that I buy the soundtrack to Grease II (I ended up getting it for Christmas that year, anyway, along with the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing … and later, More Dirty Dancing). But I digress.

By allowing me to wear my Sea-Monkey necklace, they were allowing me to be me, which would pay dividends in the future on my journey to becoming a writer.  At one point in my childhood, a bit of my naïve innocence was lost when I realized that Sea-Monkeys were nothing more than glorified brine shrimp. I made this discovery at a pet shop with my dad, when he pointed out a tank filled with what was essentially fish food. My dad even bought a bag home, which we promptly put into the tank. Sure, we didn’t have to wait for them to hatch. But that was part of the appeal. I also refused to believe they were the same thing. Within a month, they were all dead and it was back to Toys ‘R Us to buy the real deal – at 20 times the cost of the pet shop. My parents could have refused to pay that much, but they opted to let me keep the illusion real in my mind. It was both a testament to the marketing magic of the Sea-Monkey brand, and a testament to my ability to suspend disbelief.

I still have Sea-Monkeys till this day. Whenever I go into a toy store, I always make it a point to look for Sea-Monkeys and feel a tinge of disappointment when I don’t see them. In fact, I judge a toy store’s worth by whether or not they carry Sea-Monkeys on their shelves. Fortunately, Toys ‘R Us has never let me down. Recently, I noticed a variety of different types of tanks with various themes such as pirates, outer space, and even a pink tank aimed at girls, including a “Friendship Locket” – the feminine equivalent of my necklace. If only I was able to find a female friend during childhood when who shared my passion.

 I recently hatched a new batch for my two-year-old daughter. She hasn’t shown much interest – mostly, because I don’t think she even sees them. My wife, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever. Whenever I try to direct her attention to the tank to see a copulating couple, a fist fight, or just simply partake in the sheer joy of watching them frolic about in all their Sea-Monkey glory, she usually ignores me … and by extension – them. What she doesn’t fail to notice, however, is the dirty water, littered with dead carcasses sitting on the windowsill above the sink. “Why don’t you ever change the water?” she often asks. Perhaps if I did, I would currently have more than just two survivors. Before they started dying off one by one, this particular batch was the most fertile one I had ever had. They were continually mating. But their babies never lived long. Soon, the two survivors will also be gone. And I will begin the resurrection process, at which point I’m sure my wife will be even more disgusted by the debris at the bottom of the tank as the water begins to evaporate. Maybe by then, my daughter will be at the point where she can appreciate them with me.

Not only do I still have Sea-Monkeys, but I still have my Sea-Monkey necklace, stored away in a box of childhood memories along with my fake poop and vomit. Every now and then, I consider filling the necklace up, but then quickly remember what it ultimately put me through, all those years ago. Then again, without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And that truly has made all the difference. 
~R.J. Fox

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