Insulting Mr. Grinch

During the autumn of 1957, Dr. Seuss introduced a new character into the pantheon of Christmas icons: the Grinch. Despite his gruff and grumpy personality, this furry green recluse quickly became one of the most recognizable and beloved figures of the holiday season, a third place finisher behind baby Jesus and Santa Clause. His popularity skyrocketed thanks in part to CBS's animated TV special released nine years after the book's first publication.

image courtesy of MGM Television

Rather than granting MGM animation full control, Dr. Seuss went back to work revising his original tale, adapting it to a screenplay. With the script penned by the creative mind who gave life the Whoville universe, CBS hired horror movie legend, Boris Karloff to voice the green monster. The rest is television history.

In addition to the screenplay, Dr. Seuss wrote a song for the TV special. It included lyrics not contained in the original book. The tune, You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch went to great lengths to describe the depravity of the Grinch's demeanor and personality. This song has resonated with audiences for more than 50 years, ever since Thurl Ravenscroft provided his deep bass voice to the cartoon soundtrack. It has been rerecorded by a variety of artists like Cee-Lo Green and Sixpence None the Richer. And Christmas just isn't Christmas in America if I don't hear that song at least once in December.

There's a reason we love that song. The Seussian lyrics employ a series of similes and metaphors so wildly inventive and diabolically clever, the listener is compelled to ponder the meaning of each individual insult. One after another, the next put-down sounding more twisted than the prior. Yet it maintained an innocent wholesomeness throughout. These are the kind of personal digs that makes a person think "I wish I had thought of that." It begins by letting the villain know, "you're a mean one," and it goes downhill from there, a relentless onslaught of jabs and digs somehow both demeaning and delightful.

As a bullied kid, I always wished I had the courage to speak such insults to my bullies - beat them down with the power of the English language and my superior intellect. Now I just smile at the beautiful syntax and listen in awe of the unmatched wit and genius who entered these invectives into our lexicon.

Most of these taunting phrases are easy to understand. After all, these words were written for a television broadcast aimed at an elementary aged demographic. Cuddly as a cactus? Ouch. Those things are pokey; no one wants to cuddle with a cactus. Charming as an eel? Those things are fugly and possibly the least charming of all sea creatures. A bad banana with a greasy black peel? Bananas like that are better suited for the compost pile than for human consumption. We get these slights. We feel them in our bones. They allude to experiences we all share. We don't just hear these insults, we can see them, smell them, taste them, and touch them. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch is a song that speaks to all five of our senses.

We know people who we would describe as having an empty hole for a heart and a soul full of gunk. There are individuals in our lives who remind us of an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots. We often describe many of our elected officials with the three words that best describe the Grinch: stink, stank, and stunk. From start to finish, we revel in the abasement of the nasty wasty skunk and the king of sinful sots.

While we would love to see some of these words applied to our least favorite people, we also hope to be better than the Grinch. I wouldn't want anyone to prefer a sea-sick crocodile over my company. Don't tell me my heart is full of unwashed socks, I do my kids' laundry and I know how badly my teenager's unwashed socks reek. I would hate it if my heart was called a dead and moldy tomato, I loathe tomatoes. And I never want to be thought of as the human embodiment of a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.

image courtesy of MGM Television

However, there is one insult in the entire song that doesn't quite fit. Every time I hear the song, I think to myself, "actually, that sounds kind of appealing." After telling the Grinch his brain is full of spiders, (which is indisputably creepy, gross, and awful) the singer continues to state "You've got garlic in your soul."

Wait, that's it? Garlic in your soul? How is that a bad thing? Garlic is the most essential ingredient in the kitchen. It's used in so many dishes – everything from Italian cuisine to Chinese food. It's found in homesteaders' pantries and five star restaurants. It enhances meats and veggies, cheeses and breads. I worry about people who don't like garlic. I love its flavor and the smell is divine. There is a Mediterranean eatery in Post Falls that uses garlic in abundance and the scent wafts out from their building into the surrounding streets. I smell it every time I drive by and it makes my heart melt in hunger and sweet desire.

My dad once claimed he put too much garlic in a meal he was preparing. I told him his argument was invalid - there's no such thing as too much garlic.

A person with garlic in their soul is a good chef. They are the master of their kitchen and culinary artists. They bring joy to their families and their patrons. I would be honored if someone told me there was garlic in my soul.

Perhaps the garlic in the Grinch's soul was the one sliver of goodness he possessed that allowed his heart to grow three sizes. After all, no one can be pure evil, even someone vile with a termite smile like the Grinch.

image courtesy of MGM Television


On the line between Good & Evil

Fiction authors have a daunting task when telling a believable story. They want their readers to feel connected to their world as if they are observers inside the novel. Actions must adhere to a consistent set of rules either bound by the laws of physics or stretched beyond science in ways obedient to the world the writer created. Motivations need explainable reasons complimenting the plot points and characters’ personalities.

Then there are the characters. Protagonists can’t be too good and antagonists can’t be too evil. A talented scribe finds the delicate balance between these opposed forces of right and wrong which tug at the characters and influences their lives in a way the same forces affect us in the real world. When done correctly, these mixed characters become some of our favorite figures in books and movies: the flawed hero and the sympathetic villain. We love them because we can relate.

We fail to understand the hero who is pure goodness because we do not know any people that saintly in real life. We are unimpressed by pure evil villains because we have never seen someone that wicked in our personal interactions.

The best stories have heroes who make mistakes. They have fatal flaws. Their history is littered with choices they regret. They do not save the day because of their inherent goodness, they do so reluctantly. They become heroes because they made a decision to be better than their past selves.

The best stories have villains whose treachery is born from the nature of their environment, not the depths of their soul. We recognize their behavior is wrong but we empathize with them because we know we might do something similar if thrust into the same predicament. We understand our own potential for selfishness and deceit and how easy it would be to commit to misconduct under less fortunate circumstances.

We know flawed heroes and sympathetic villains in real life. We are friends with people who have inflicted great harm with good intentions. We commend people who demonstrate heroics by being in the right place at the right time. We work with people who do their best to live righteously yet fail, disappointing the people they love the most. And we have family members who followed a destructive path only to find redemption and use their pain to help others going through similar struggles. If heroes and villains exist in real life, they are our parents and siblings, our kids and partners, our colleagues and neighbors.

If we search our hearts, we can find the same qualities inside ourselves. We see our good deeds along with the bad. We are both the hero and the villain in our own stories, sympathetic to our past and flawed in our future. This fragile existence between holy and profane is what makes us human. It gives us great stories to tell at parties and pass along to our grandchildren. It allows us to relate to others and find healing in the two most powerful words in the English language: me too.