I’m chagrined that I missed Banned Books Week at the end of September. Normally I’d celebrate by buying as many as I can afford from an independent book store, but I was busy babysitting my two-year-old grandson while my daughter and son-in-law went on a four day trip. This may not sound like a big deal to someone who hasn’t done it, but mix together a Labrador Retriever puppy obviously bred for search and destroy missions, a fat beagle who steals dinner off the kitchen counter faster than you can order replacement carry out, and a giggle-motor toddler boy and I think it’s fair to wonder how I’m now typing a coherent sentence.
What I learned during that experience is how much I take language for granted. This may be an occupational hazard for writers, although we struggle with its limits all the time as we try to match words and meaning gracefully. Actually, my grandson spoke quite constantly and expressively at twenty-six months, which he was at the time. But here’s how a conversation in the car went:
Me: Andrew, how about some yummy spaghetti for dinner?
Andrew: NO! Pffts gmmosta! Loomsti, plez. Chiklee fries! Doumo nommo. Chiklee fries. LYING KING.
Me: Honey, I didn’t quite get that. What is it you would like?
Andrew (earnest look on his face visible in rear view mirror): Guffalh. Chikleefries. Murraoh tumouev. I wan lying king. LYING KING! Chikleefries.
Me: (slow dawn at horizon of dark mind as I remember list of obsessions provided by my daughter) OH, okay! we’ll put on The Lion King video while I make spaghetti.
Andrew: YES! NO! I buromme fafaot chickiefries. Chikeefries!
He stuck with it until I managed to shake chicken fries loose from The Lion King and the other syllables, those probably having been an elaborate explanation of the national voting trends. Of course. Chicken and french fries. Perfectly obvious, he must have been thinking, since he asks for chicken and french fries every single night. This was his introduction to the sad fact that sometimes The Totally Apparent completely eludes me.
I’ve realized that occasionally it’s just as well for a writer to bypass language, at least initially. It’s easier to glean the truth of a situation. We have just been to see him perform (Live! On Stage!) in his first Christmas Show, which did not involve language, and I am ready to say something sensible. Now that I’ve stepped back and observed without being all hung up on words, I see it clearly: my grandson is brilliant. If I could stay on task the way he can, I would have done my Christmas shopping, written a novel of astonishing genius, washed my hair and the dishes, and I mean last week.
The toddlers were led out and strung across the stage like a bright holiday necklace. Dressed in his new red shirt that his parents had not actually had to sew him into even though he hated it, Andrew patiently waited for The Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick” to come through the sound system.
Music! Three teachers cued the kids. Some of the two year olds immediately began jumping up and down in a disorganized manner, but our boy wisely played statue for a good fifteen seconds until he felt the beat in his bones. Then, keeping his feet in place, he started jouncing from his knees, waving his hands joyfully while moving his head in perfect rhythm. The little girl next to him did a cheerleader jump, and threw herself at Andrew’s feet in an unrehearsed move that seemed to take the teachers by surprise. He ignored her and kept going. The toddler boy next to the little girl thought that looked like fun and threw himself on top of the girl. Undaunted by spotlights on the unfamiliar high school stage, an ocean of parents, grandparents, godparents, and possibly random off-the-street strangers crowding the auditorium to see the daycare’s annual Christmas production, our boy never once threw himself on top of any other two-year-old who spontaneously decided to follow that newly hip trend, but steadfastly heard the drum and kept time. He wasn’t even fazed when down the line one of his friends began an unscripted strip tease. Our Andrew danced on.
As a writer I can assure you that this level of creative focus is extremely advanced. Way above me, for example. More like, say, Beethoven or Tolstoy. You don’t think they went around throwing themselves on top of other two-year-olds instead of working, do you? I bet neither one of them would have gotten up from the computer to “stretch” and maybe grab some chocolate every seventeen minutes, either. But I digress.
Now, at one point Andrew did briefly stop dancing and tug at a teacher’s hand, look up and earnestly attempt to tell her something. Here are the possibilities:
1) Those other kids are ruining this show and they’re upstaging me, too. My parents and grandparents came to see me and I’m really great at this, so could you please move the bodies?
2) I have to go to the potty. It’s my first time, and if you don’t take me right now, I won’t attempt it again for at least six months.
3) Are you aware that Albert Einstein was unable to get a job at all after he got his doctorate and ended up working as a live-in tutor for a high school kid while Mileva Maric was pregnant with their out-of-wedlock daughter?
The teacher didn’t understand what he was saying and didn’t respond. Andrew shrugged and quickly resumed his dance, undeterred by the limits of language. I have a lot to learn from this boy.