I’m not a sailor, nor a vegetable, but…

Posted on June 20, 2008. Filed under: Musings, Philosophy, Spirituality |

…Popeye’s philosophy has helped shape my destiny!  Perhaps that’s putting it a bit emphatically, but he was a great influence on my developing childhood sense of self.  A lot of old cartoons were on the television on Saturday mornings when I was growing up.  My parents worked on Saturdays, so, early in the morning, my father would leave for work, and then my mother would do what I used to call “fussing around”.  That’s how it looked to me.  In reality she was straightening the house, and making sure I had what I needed for the next several hours.  Although I was very young, my parents’ business was just around the corner so they were never far away.  After she left, if I didn’t have plans with my friends yet, I’d watch the Saturday morning cartoons.

Popeye cartoons were not among my favorites, really.  I preferred others for content and characters, and I found his girlfriend, Olive Oyl rather annoying and somewhat disturbing.  But, Popeye had several distinct characteristics I admired, and do to this day.  One was self-confidence.  His signature song contained the words “I’m strong to the finich, ’cause I eats me Spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! (toot, toot)”  The self-confidence was obvious in his declaration of strength.  I wasn’t used to people proclaiming their admirable qualities so openly and blatantly, and I was intrigued.  (I was also fascinated by Popeye’s apparent ability to convert his tobacco pipe to a musical instrument at a moment’s whim.  Did he ever smoke it, or just “toot” it?—an unsolved mystery…)

Another quality I noticed right away was that Popeye was his own man.  This becomes even more distinct in his signature phrase, which I’ll discuss shortly, but, first I’ll point out that Popeye used language; he didn’t allow language to use him.  He used, perhaps “sailor’s vernacular” in which (along with other kinds of slang) “I eats me Spinach” was perfectly acceptable (although it’s surprising the educators at the time would want our sponge-like young minds exposed to this sort of thing), but beyond that, when Popeye found that a word he wanted to use didn’t rhyme with another, he just reinvented the word so it did!:  “Finish” became “finich”, if it rhymed better with “spinach”.  I thought this an excellent system, and managed to irritate my parents quite a lot by saying things like “No, I haven’t finiched my homework yet”, or “I’ll finich cleaning my room later!”  (Hmm, I still say that last one oftener than I should.  In fact, instead of typing this right now, I should finich…ah, well, later.)

I also admired that, in addition to being strong, and self-confident, he was not afraid to accept help, when necessary.  This help most often took the form of a can of spinach.  I was one of many children, from my grandparents’ time to…now? Are kids still watching Popeye?…that acquired a taste for spinach from watching what it did for Popeye.  I no longer enjoy canned spinach—too salty and mushy—but I did as a child; I was always trying to get my parents to serve it for dinner.  Of course I wanted to be strong, like Popeye, but spinach was heavily marketed as being very nutritious, too, and if it was good enough for Popeye, etc… Ironically (that’s a pun, check back in 3 seconds to see why) when I was researching Popeye for this post (yes, I did spend some of my life doing that!) I came across this:   Early references to spinach in the Fleischer cartoons and subsequently in further stories of Popeye are attributed to the publication of a study which, because of a misprint, attributed to spinach ten times its actual iron content.” [from Wikipedia; article: Popeye]   But, never mind, spinach made me “strong like iron” when I was six years old, and I challenge you to disprove that!

An asideHere’s an early video (from1933!), wherein Popeye sings his theme song for the first time.  He and Olive Oyl go to the carnival, where Popeye does the hula with Betty Boop!  I liked this 7-minute segment until the very end, where Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis, kidnaps Olive Oyl and ties her to the train tracks.  Why are villains always tying “damsels in distress” to the train tracks?  Who does this in real life?  There must be some primal mythology that explains this.  What’s odd, to me, is that in the beginning of the film, Olive is dealing with Bluto just fine on her own, and has dispatched a couple of “overly friendly” sailors besides!  Oh, well, generally, this cartoon is fairly forward thinking for 1933.

The most compelling teaching of Popeye, though, was his definitive statement:  “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.”  The first time I heard this I thought Popeye was championing another vegetable, one I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as spinach.  However I soon realized it was his distinctive accent putting forth this gem of self-acceptance.  Popeye had no illusions about his own intellect, for instance, or his social standing.  He was content with who he was.  In my family, contentment was a rare thing.  It seemed we were always striving for something.  I can’t think what, looking back on it now.  In another article an author reported that his phrase “may be seen as an expression of individualism”.  This might have been considered subversive in some times and some cultures, but I took it to mean that my unique self was valuable, just as it was.  This underlying belief sort of “got me through” the often difficult teenage years.  I knew I’d be able to express as myself…eventually.

To reinforce these thoughts, a musical production came to my attention in later years.  A particular song, I Am What I Am (there’s a theme, here) spoke to me, and I get tears in my eyes to this day when hearing it.  This video shows a wonderful performance of that terrific song.

Finally, in looking within my culture for other similar, supportive phrases, I remembered the quote from the early bible (Exodus 3:14), in which God says to Abraham “I Am THAT I Am”.  I have to admit I’ve never understood precisely what is meant by that.  I’ve had plenty of people attempt to “explain” it to me, but still I never could find a meaning which resonated; which felt right within.  Then, I read this interpretation:  “God is ‘in the process of being’, a reference that could say, based on theological interpretation, that God exists in all times.”  Apparently, the translation from the Hebrew is not straightforward, and is subject to dissection and opinion and much nuance of meaning.  The translation I am familiar with is only one such interpretation.  Amazing what one learns when one thinks one’s writing about cartoons. 🙂

In any event, I’m grateful for Popeye showing up in my life, just when I needed him.  Just like the hero he is.  Toot, toot!

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12 Responses to “I’m not a sailor, nor a vegetable, but…”

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more from Muse: Right after I posted this piece, I discovered fellow blogger gentledove posted about Popeye, too: http://gentledove.wordpress.com/popeye-the-sailor/
How could both of us be thinking about an old cartoon at the same time? [Cue spooky music] 😉

He was CJ’s absolute favourite as a baby…so much so that he was given a gorgeous Popeye as a gift for his first birthday. Interesting what gets us through difficult times in our childhood and adolescence isn’t it? My father still tells stories of his strange daughter who propped books up on the taps while washing up and other strange…to him…exploits. He still does not connect that it was an escape from whatever was going on at home. Olive Oyl was pretty forward thinking for the time as well…and know what you mean about the train tracks…maybe it was a tribute to the silent movies where the damsel was often rescued from the tracks!

This was worth waiting for…you had been telling us you had a serious post involving a lot of research coming…..well done!!

Good read.

i agree with rikard; i don’t really like popeye, but he is sure a character to remember as far as cartoons go! (i was more into the care bears and my little pony, haha.) you certainly showed why, and i never thought of him that way. i love the character analysis of popeye. 🙂

Popeye was never one of my favourites either – when I was very young, I always thought he was just a not-so-subtle attempt to trick me into eating spinach, and I wasn’t buying it. Plus the characters all looked very strange to me!

You’re very good at finding the deeper meanings behind things, you know. I never thought of Popeye as a champion of valuing oneself, but that does seem to be the case. And good for Popeye!

It’s best if I just say that Popeye along with topcat and other U.S. cartoons impressed me at a very young age because I thought they were putting on funny voices, it was years before I realised that Olive Oyl and co were just American voices, all that other stuff I will leave to you, except to say of course that even though it is a parody of true life, the story of rejected love and the revenge it sometimes inspires which is what that shot was about is perfectly recognisable, fancy trying to spiritualise it.

He was, MQ? Aww, that’s nice. Another thing I have in common wit’ me mate, as Popeye might say. Apparently both our fathers had strange children, and it’s a good thing many of us find ways to cope. I do take your point about tying damsels to the train tracks coming from early films; I think you’re right, there. It just seems a rather bizarre way to dispatch ones victim. 😕 Yes, Olive Oyl had a pretty good right hook 😉 and she and Popeye and Swea’ Pea made a rather modern family. Thank you, much! I really enjoyed exploring the “deeper” Popeye.

Thank you, Rikard. Appreciate you reading it.

sulz, most people look at cartoons as just cartoons—entertainment for children. Then someone like me comes along and has to analyse them! He really did make an impression on me, though. While I wasn’t “into” his lifestyle, as he constantly felt the need to beat people up, for instance, I liked his “non-nonsense, take charge” attitude. Glad you liked it!

A lot of kids didn’t like spinach, B0bby, in spite of Popeye’s efforts. It’s an acquired taste; I was just determined to acquire it! And the characters are strange; look at Popeye’s forearms. Olive Oyl’s a bit of a stick, too, isn’t she? Thanks for the comments about finding the deeper meanings; I appreciate that, and nice of you to say so. It seems to be my lot in life, but, anyway I enjoy it. 🙂

Fancy, indeed, gentledove. As you say, the story of rejected love has a long history, and oftentimes does inspire revenge. As I mentioned to B0bby, it seems I must spiritualise it, or at least psychoanalyse it. It just did seem that way to me as a child: Popeye was obviously the “good guy”, and if I ate my spinach I could strut about as he did. I imagine the voices did sound funny to you! They’re not exactly the voices I would propose as excellent examples of American speaking, but they must have sounded quite alien to your childhood self. 😉

I always liked Popeye. Somehow the violence never stuck with me, but the heroism and sense of fair play did. I suppose that in some deep unconscious way his “I yam what I yam” made an impression too. He never made any apologies for who he was nor did he ever try to be anything other than what he was. I think for me that his self-awareness, honesty, and directness fed into my perception of him as a hero figure. Since so much of my childhood was about mind games and navigating emotional minefields Popeye’s straightforward approach was not only refreshing but represented a kind of safety I never got to experience. Thanks for reminding me of happy Saturday morning memories! 🙂

Dearest Muse, I am sure if we met we would be the kind of friends who fight like cats and dogs.

I am with BobbyG. I watched it, but thought they were trying to make me want to eat veggies. LOL! I love them now.

What an article, Muse! Who would have ever thought what might be underneath this cartoon and on being comfortable with who you are. I’m certainly glad you found your chance to express yourself. I really like “who” you are. 🙂

Haha great post how you been muse?

Interesting what you said about the violence, joyful. There is a lot of it in there. I guess I didn’t take it all that seriously. I remember “adults” being worried it would turn us into little hooligans, but, as far as I can tell, you and I are OK! 😉 You mention mindgames, and how Popeye was free of them. I loved that I always knew where I was with him. He’s not the most subtle fellow in the world! You are very welcome, and thank you for sharing your experience here.

gd: 😀

Ahhh, BD, so the great insidious vegetable plot caught you in its snare! muahaha! I’ve been to “self-discovery” workshops where I’m supposed to list my favorite teachers or role models, and I feel a little weird putting “Popeye”, but, there you are. Oh, thank you so very much! You could hardly say something I’d appreciate more. 😛

Thanks kaylee. If I can put a smile on your face, that makes me happy. I’ve been very well, thank you. I’ve visited you to check out how you’re doing, too. 🙂

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