Tuesday, November 27, 2007

May I Mambo Dogface in the Banana Patch?

Comedian Steve Martin had a bit in his live shows back in the Seventies called something like “Wrong English.” He talked about how fun it might be to have a child and then teach the child the wrong words for things. He figured that between birth and the first day of kindergarten parents had a good five years to really mess up their child’s vocabulary. He imagined the child raised by such prankster parents raising his hand in school to ask, “May I mambo dogface in the banana patch?”

What got me thinking about this was something Isabel said to her babysitter last week. While I was picking her up at the sitter’s house, Isabel seemed especially anxious to get out to the driveway and into the car. The sitter, Kim, asked, “Why are you in such a hurry to get out of here—did you have a bad time today?” And Isabel responded, “No, I had fun! I just want to see if Smoojipants left anything on my car seat!”

Kim smiled and nodded, but I could tell she had no idea what Isabel was talking about. Frankly, I would have been shocked if she had known what Isabel was talking about. You see, Smoojipants is a figment of the Dawson family imagination. He is a seagull who follows Isabel around, watching out for her and leaving little treats on her car seat every once in a while.

Bizarre, I know. But is it really any more bizarre than a large man clad all in red who slides down chimneys to deliver presents to deserving boys and girls? Or a fairy who trades money for used teeth? Or an oversized bunny that enters houses in some as-yet-unrevealed manner to leave candy for kids?

I could tell you where Smoojipants comes from, but that wouldn’t make the story any less odd. Suffice it to say that he, (Smooji is definitely male), is the result of an off-the-cuff story I told Isabel one day while we were riding around coastal Connecticut. For some reason she was enchanted by the bird and we created a back-story for him and fleshed out what sort of powers he has and how he uses them to help only certain deserving children. Primary among these certain deserving children is Isabel.

Once every few weeks I will place a small pack of sugarless gum or a lollipop on Isabel’s car seat before picking her up from somewhere. Then I will lock the doors and go inside to get her. When we get back to the car I make a show of unlocking the door and letting us in. Isabel finds the treat and says with glee, “Daddy! Smooji was here and he left me some gum!!” To which I will invariably reply, “How did he get in the car? It was locked!” Isabel’s standard answer is, “Smooji can do anything—he loves me.”

Now that Isabel goes to school every day I am beginning to wonder how long the magic of Smoojipants can hold on. She talks about him to her friends and seems dumfounded that they don’t know who he is. Erica has never really taken to the whole magical-seagull-who-delivers-occasional-treats-through-locked-doors thing, but I think it’s because she wasn’t there at the creation. She heard about it the same way you are hearing about it: secondhand. And when you hear about it this way it just seems odd. Or maybe even schoolbus.

“Schoolbus” is another one of those private vocabulary words belonging only to the Dawson family. Two years ago Isabel characterized something as “stupid.” The word “stupid” sounded terrible coming out of her mouth so we asked her to come up with another word that didn’t sound so bad. She decided to use “schoolbus” to replace “stupid” in everyday conversation. So now sometimes we are out in public and Isabel will see someone do something…well, stupid, and she will say very loudly, “Did you see that schoolbus man walk into that telephone pole?”

While I don’t know any parents who have actually followed Mr. Martin’s plan, lately I have been thinking about the deeper significance of what he was saying. Children and parents really do share a private language for the first few years of a child’s life. Some of it may be a little embarrassing, or hard to explain, but I love the intimacy it hints at. It says, “There are things we share that nobody else on the planet has access to.”

Language is one of the things that separates us from other species. And within the species, language again differentiates one group from another. So having a private family vocabulary feels like the most special bond there can be. Once kids get to school and start spending much of each day in the company of other kids, these private languages tend to be replaced by the things everyone else is saying. I know this process is natural, but I can’t help but feel a little sad about it. I hope it isn’t schoolbus of me to think Smooji might stick around just another few months.

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