Monday, December 12, 2011

Curiosity and the Munt Knee

Have you ever been curious about an adult’s odd pronunciation of a word? Especially if when they say it, they get that sad/happy look that tells you it’s connected to a cherished memory.

“Mommy, I want a munt knee.”

The expression on my two-year-old’s face was intense and sincere. A munt knee. 

I’d had a similar experience with my older daughter, who’d looked up from play one day and said,  “Mommy, I want a rubber ducky.”

How cute, I thought. She’s been watching Sesame Street. She spoke very plainly, and I knew exactly where to get her a cute, yellow, rubber ducky.

So next time we went to the TG&Y, I picked one up.

“No,” she said when I presented it. Her tone and expression added, Silly adults. They just don’t understand anything.

“But…but… It’s a rubber ducky.”

“Not that kind of rubber ducky. The other kind.”

“I don’t understand. I don’t know about any other kind of rubber ducky.”

Her expression said, Of course you don’t. Poor old thing.

“What does this ‘other kind’ of rubber ducky look like?”

“It looks like a real rubber ducky.”

I finally had to take her to the store. “Show me this rubber ducky you want.”

She led me directly to the sporting goods section. The decoy she selected still sits by our bathtub and has entertained both children, four grandchildren, and assorted nieces and nephews.

But you can see why I might be set back a bit by a request for a munt knee. If I couldn’t figure out a rubber ducky, how was I going to figure out a munt knee?

“Ummm. What does a munt knee look like?”

She stomped her foot and shook her head, sending all the strawberry blonde wisps of hair I had carefully combed down back to floating in the air.

“You not sayn it wight. It’th a munt knee.”

I knew I wasn’t going to win this argument. “OK. Next time we go shopping, can you show me this munt…uh….thing you want?”

“OK.” And she danced off.

Some time later, while shopping at Sears, I saw one of those stuffed chimpanzees with a banana in his hand, and it hit me. Munt knee. Monkey! She wouldn’t know the difference between a monkey and a chimpanzee. I snatched it up and took it to her.

Tears welled up in her little eyes. “No,” she said. “Not THAT. A munt knee.”

OK. So she did know the difference. “I’m sorry I got the wrong munt…uh…monkey.” I thought maybe now that I had discovered what she didn’t want, maybe she could give me some kind of clue about what she did want. “Please tell me again what kind of monkey you want.”

She screwed up her face so hard I could practically see the thoughts zooming through her head: How can I get this dense grownup to understand what I’m asking for?

Finally her face relaxed and she said, “I want a kyoo we us Joe wedge munt knee.”

Oh, great! I wracked my brain trying to remember if we’d seen a monkey named Joe Something-or-other anyplace. At the zoo? No. No Joe Monkeys there. But then, no cows lived at the zoo, either, and she’d insisted she’d seen cows last time we went. Never did decipher that one.

“OK,” I said, surrendering. “We’ll look again.”

So next time we went shopping, we looked again. Nothing. No Joe Monkeys anywhere. But we kept looking. And we finally found what she wanted. You’ve figured it out already, haven’t you?

We were walking by a bookstore when she grabbed my hand.

“Mommy! There him is!”

“There who is?” (Ok, I’m kind of slow sometimes.)

“Kyoo we us Joe wedge!”

She pulled me over to one of the displays, and there it was—the latest book about Curious George the Monkey, accompanied by an assortment of stuffed Curious Georges. 

And that’s how Curious George became her bedtime companion at least until she married, and how our family came to pronounce “monkey” such an odd way.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Truth or Imagination?

A friend of mine calls himself a professional liar because he writes fiction. He’s joking, of course, because we all know the difference between lying and storytelling is whether you present your story as truth.

Unfortunately, in the last few years several great storytellers have presented their work as truth and later had to admit they had been writing, if not fiction, at least embellished truth. In some cases it seemed that they had actually begun to believe what they wrote. That can happen. A story repeated often enough becomes indistinguishable from truth even by those who tell it.

And in my many years of observing people, I’ve discovered that truth is somewhat relative anyway. This happens when individuals perceive facts differently because we approach events from the perspective of our own lives and experiences. (If you don’t believe this, just try comparing memories from your childhood with your siblings.)

I remember being asked once if someone was tall or short, dark or light. But from my particular place in the world, pretty much anyone over 14 is tall, and anyone who isn’t a tow-headed blond is at least as dark than I am. So I described the person in question as tall and dark and was later chided because they were of average height and complexion. I had told the truth from my own perspective.

I observed another aspect of the relativity of truth when my mother started showing signs of Lewy Body dementia. Those who have Lewy Body dementia seem to have trouble telling dreams from reality and they tend to misinterpret stimuli. A dream about a power strip catching on fire was so real that my mother poured water on it and told me not to worry about the smell of smoke. (Try being awakened at 3 a.m. by that kind of “reassurance!”) A robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door became person to her—a person who failed to regain consciousness when she moved the robe to the bed. So she called 911 for help. Her reflection in a mirror became a stranger in a room beyond the wall. She couldn’t figure out why they were living with her, but they became an entire family who would leave the children with her when they went to work. She’d leave snacks out for the kids to eat.

I learned very soon not to tell my mother the people she saw didn’t exist. I just told her I couldn’t see them. To her, their existence was truth, and my inability to see them was a simple fact she accepted without question.

And sometimes truths change over time. Once people believed that trees were inhabited by spirits, that nixies lived in the rivers, that fairies danced in the garden under the moon, leaving circles of toadstools to show where they danced. They accepted it as truth. We still can see those circles. Maybe we can’t see the fairies because we no longer believe in the truth of their existence.

On Seeing Half a Fairy Ring

So, what prosaic modern faeries danced last night
On an open lawn beside a cornfield
In East Central Illinois?

Musicians who in olden tymes
Played harps strung with spider web
Must now play fiddle and steel guitar
While they sing wild haunting melodies
'Bout truckin and drinkin beer
Made from honeysuckle like their wines of eld.

Do they yet wear gauzy flowing medieval robes,
Or do they dress in Levis, cowboy boots and Caterpillar caps
And clog around the circle
Left to warn away nosy humankind?

And was the circle left unfinished
Because a few minutes after midnight,
They heard a hot tip
On grain futures and pork bellies to invest
Their hidden treasures in?

No matter. For the day after they danced
The farmer’s son rode by on his tractor
And mowed down all their toadstools.