I want to do something for the community here in Siberia With a View.
I thought long and hard about a contribution, and I reached a decision.
I’m going to build a monkey house.
Not just any monkey house, but the biggest and best damned monkey house ever constructed in the Four Corners region, if not in the entire state of Colorado.
I worked on my idea day and night for weeks, for months. I completed exhaustive research, took copious notes and drew plans in a sketchbook I carry with me, filling it with architectural doodles, detailing my concept of a glorious edifice that will someday rise west of town on a parcel of bare turf located on a small knoll near a weed-choked lake — a glorious monument to science and entertainment.
I am exhausted.
I am excited.
I am not a stranger to monkeys. My work as a crack newspaper editor frequently brought me into contact with monkeys, yet I am no expert. Therefore, I used the Internet to contact Dr. Helga Melming, director of the Institute of Primate Studies at the University of Heidelberg, and I asked for assistance.
Dr. Melming — an acknowledged authority on monkey behavior, and monkey house construction — has been more than generous, sharing cutting-edge information with me. With her help, my project is a guaranteed success.
I worship Melming. We have corresponded for two years and I consider myself her most devoted acolyte. The good doctor is a somewhat weathered but stunning Teutonic specimen, sparse hair still defiantly gold, aging but lithe, nattily attired in severe suits and corrective shoes, and exhibiting — for a Germanic primatologist — an eccentric and spirited sense of humor. Melming is also acknowledged to possess one of the three or four best spaetzle recipes in the Heidelberg area.
Melming analyzed my plans, made corrections and suggestions, shared her wisdom. With her approval, I am prepared to move forward.
Once my monkey house is complete, I will invite Helga to Siberia With a View. We will spend the afternoon observing our local monkeys, then we will adjourn to my kitchen where I’ll prepare a snack of bockwurst and a delightful, caraway-kissed goat cheese.
I am more than well versed in Melming’s work. I memorized most of her ground-breaking tome “A Verification of the Behaviorist Structural Thesis: Psycho-sociological Arguments for the Development of the Ideal Monkey Environment.” It is one of my favorite books. I re-read portions of the classic every night before I go to sleep.
Melming is perched on the quivering tip of a small but significant research trend— revered by social planners and circus managers alike. She is a giant and she is emphatic about several things when it comes to design of the perfect monkey house. I will take her emphases seriously as I move ahead with my project.
First, to succeed in the monkey house business, she says, you must select your stock from the local monkey population. Monkeys, in other words, must be acclimated. You can ship your monkeys from elsewhere — and, to ensure the reliable development of a healthy gene pool, this is necessary — but the immigrants must be given time to adjust to conditions. The minimum time is six months. The perfect time is two to three years.
Second, says Melming, it is wise to select older monkeys for use in the monkey house. The severely constricted circumstances imposed on the denizens of the structure have a less deleterious effect on older monkeys. They adapt quicker, says the doctor. In fact, they not only survive, but they thrive in conditions of severe sensory deprivation. According to Melming, once older monkeys are no longer dominated by the reproductive imperative, those who cannot be taught to indulge in simple pursuits such as card games, watching television or playing golf, are particularly insensitive to conditions in the monkey house. They are content to eat, defecate and ride the motorized scooters made available to them to allow for ease of transport.
Younger monkeys, on the other hand, once confined to the monkey house, often organize desperate escape attempts or become severely depressed, even suicidal.
This is good to know. Older monkeys compose a sizable segment of our local monkey population.
Aside from a hearty belly laugh enjoyed while witnessing the goofy antics of the residents, what can we expect to take from our experience at the monkey house?
Put another way: Why build it, Karl? Does your proposed monkey house offer anything but temporary, superficial entertainment?
Yes, it does.
Melming advised me that while the monkey house produces some of the purest entertainment possible, there is an educational dimension alive with startling examples of fundamental social behavior. The good doctor is very wise.
And what is the central psycho-social principal illuminated by the Melming monkey house?
“Simple,” wrote the precious princess of primatology in a recent e-mail. “Melming’s Maxim: Structure determines behavior. Behavior does not influence structure.”
“Ah,” I replied. “Allow me to rephrase your statement. ‘Same cage, different monkeys … identical behavior.’”
“Precisely liebchen, precisely. You are a very good boy. Reward yourself with a tasty snack.”
According to Melming, the ideal monkey house is structured physically and socially to prompt behavioral dynamics that encourage the full flowering of what the doctor calls “terminal monkeyness.”
And in our observation of terminal or “pure” monkeyness, exists the potential for enlightenment.
In other words, when you pay your admission and walk into the observation gallery of the new, gleaming building, you will witness a profound lesson in behavioral law — you will perceive something far greater than a few scruffy simians scratching themselves, sucking on browned hunks of turnip donated by the local supermarket and throwing feces at onlookers.
There is an added bonus: The monkeys believe their behavior is the engine that drives and shapes their little world while, in reality, it is the monkey house that makes the monkeys what they are! As spectators, we are aware of this delicious irony and we observe the machinations of the primate population with a clear understanding of the utter hopelessness of their condition. Existential, don’t you think?
How is this situation engineered?
Melming’s monkey house design involves a special configuration, and the monkey house I will build (once I get a variance from the subdivision’s covenants and restrictions) will follow Melming’s plan.
One chamber, the “primary space,” is large and well lit. Its floor is slightly higher than the floor of the second section of the complex. Perches in the first section are spacious and very comfortable. There are mirrors placed on the walls of the primary space so monkeys in that room can admire themselves as they have nits picked from their backsides by a select group of subservient monkeys (Melming calls them “serfs”). The number of serf monkeys is increased at regular intervals in accord with a timetable calculated by Melming. The increase in serfs, notes Melming, is invariably followed by an acceleration of preening behavior by the residents of the primary space.
The second group of monkeys, confined to a cold, dark, wet room — the “secondary space” — has a clear view of the first room and these monkeys are forced to provide a regular “tribute” of vegetable matter to the group in the primary space — again, as per Melming’s schedule: one payment per year, or four equal quarterly payments to include interest. One of the serf monkeys closely monitors the payments and monkeys in the secondary space who fail to pay are shunned and treated harshly. Many will have their asses rubbed raw by repeated paddling.
There is a partially open door leading from the primary space to the secondary space. There is an on-going attempt on the part of the monkeys in the secondary space to make their way through the door and displace the set of monkeys on the higher platform.
While the essence of revolution ferments in the secondary space, the monkeys in the first room become complacent and arrogant, and spend their time squatting on their haunches, engaging in haughty dominance behavior, largely oblivious to their kin gathered in the darkness. When a single monkey from the secondary space attempts to curry favor and enter the more desirable room, the group drives it away. This is nasty stuff.
With no diplomatic way to gain entry to the primary space, monkeys in the secondary space are forced by sense deprivation and increasing despair (as far as they know, there is no reality, no life, no hope outside the monkey house) to combine forces to invade the first room.
The rebels huddle in dark corners of the secondary space and work each other into a frenzy, screeching, pounding on each other, leaping up and down with their rumps changing color, until they are ready to do battle. They yell and chatter noisily, thrashing in a chaotic cluster, producing an ominous din and finally break through to the primary space en masse, overthrowing the dominant group, triumphantly taking their places on the higher platform next to the mirrors. They then proceed to act the same way the displaced set of monkeys acted, refining some of the techniques and social operations until the exiled group of monkeys observes, organizes, and forces it’s way back. This goes on ad infinitum, on an approximate two-day schedule.
Same cage, different monkeys.
The fun, of course, comes in observing the inflated pomp and glory of the victors, all the time realizing there is a law in operation. An inviolable law: Melming’s Maxim.
Same cage, different monkeys. The cage is in control. The minute a monkey enters the monkey house, the beast’s fate is sealed. The triumph of the supposed victors is glued to a core of pathos and as observers, we are at once amused and chastened by what we see. It is a Skinnerian opera wherein one pompous, incomplete aria is repeated over and over and over.
What a treat!
But, it gets better.
Melming’s plan requires that the size of the monkey house be increased periodically, thus reinforcing the inhabitants’ illusion that the monkey house is at the center of the universe and that their activity has stunning teleological import. If the cage gets bigger, obviously, they think, they must be important. Their ill-informed bombast is touching.
I intend to organize a series of benefits and auctions to raise the funds necessary to construct the monkey house. Hopefully, there will be grant money available once the first phase of the structure is complete, allowing me to fully realize Melming’s design. I envision holding a car wash or two at a local bank parking lot before winter sets in, and a free-throw contest at the high school gym on a date to be set in the near future. Every dime counts.
Ticket prices for entry to the monkey house will be reasonable, with special rates available for local school tours. Children should visit the monkey house often, observing the spectacle of fundamental natural law at an early age, absorbing the lessons enacted by our simian friends.
A Chamber of Commerce event at the grand opening of the facility will be a nice touch. A plush lobby area will be a perfect setting for ribbon cutting ceremony and a wine and cheese tasting party.
For dessert at the opening of the new monkey house, what could be more appropriate than one of my favorite banana recipes (with a tip of the hat to Craig Claiborne — said to have been an intimate friend of Helga Melming)?
We’re going to have glazed bananas that, prior to serving, are set on fire! The fruit arson has two aspects: first, we can dim the lights in the lobby and the presentation will be aesthetically delightful and, second, monkeys are deathly afraid of fire. They will stay, confused and huddled together, where they belong.
I’ll use firm bananas. If the skins are speckled with brown spots, they are too soft. By the same token, the bananas should not be green.
I’ll slice the bananas in half, lengthwise, then cook them in butter, over medium high heat in a heavy pan, sprinkling them with lemon juice and sugar. When one side of a banana is browned, I’ll turn and lightly brown the second side. The sugar should glaze the bananas quite nicely.
Claiborne recommends adding canned Bing cherries at this point. Why not? If Helga liked the guy, can he be wrong?
Once the fruit is glazed and hot, we’ll turn off the lights and I’ll add cognac to the pan and set the whole mess ablaze. Perhaps I’ll take a slug of the cognac before I lead the first tour of the newly opened monkey house. It will be a festive evening.
If you can’t attend the grand opening, be sure to visit the facility once it is open.
Come watch the monkeys.
See Melming’s Maxim displayed in a splendid environment. After a few visits you’ll be ready to ponder Melming’s corollary: “The world is a zoo; there is a house in the zoo for every monkey.”
And think about wearing a raincoat.