Susan Sontag once famously said that illness is another country. So too is childhood, or, better, it is a journey through a different place, populated quite differently than the more mundane dwelling places of ordinary adults.
I have an absorbing an interesting job that I like a lot, but when I see Little Bug, I sometimes feel like I've wandered onto a livelier and certainly funnier planet. Yesterday Jennifer drove me and a colleague home, which put me in the back seat with a Bug who was completely uninterested in the grown-up conversation in the front seat. Soon he started moving his fingers and making funny sounds.
"Are you playing a pretend trumpet?" I asked.
"Tuba," he explained.
"Like, whomp! Whomp?" I asked
"Lup. Now, clarinet," he explained stretching out his fingers and making higher pitched sounds.
Then he made a sound that started high and went low, moving one hand down in a slide.
"That's a trombone!" I cheered.
He chuckled. "Listen, Mama Laura. Trumpet," he added, wriggling his fingers and going high.
He patted his legs rapidly and loudly. "That drums!"
How many adults get to ride home with a whole pretend marching band?
There's also the work of learning, mapping a whole world and at least one language, which seems to be happening so quickly I marvel that he has time to sleep. I don't know the actual number, but surely they learn three quarters of the words in a language before they ever start school. I've said this before, but early childhood learning puts college students to shame.
Little Bug loves every word of it, and so we all turn into teachers in his presence (I found myself explaining how plumbing carries clean water into houses and waste water out before breakfast this morning, and Jennifer told him about the important role of hot water heaters if you want a bath. He was rapt.)
But the funniest part is how he also notices how the pedagogical role works. "What's this, Mama Laura?" he asked, holding up a picture.
"That's a lobster," I answered cautiously, suspecting from his tone that something was afoot.
"Good job, Mama Laura!" He pointed to his mouth. "Eat it. Yum!"
He got every part of the teacherly encounter in his gentle teasing. Ask the question, evaluate and reward the answer, and then expand on the information. I was in hysterics.
He did it again last night as he got me to accompany him on his drum with me playing the cymbals. He let me try for a while and then asked for them. "Try like this," he said, showing me how to lower one onto the edge of the other like finger cymbals. They did indeed make a sweeter sound, and he smiled encouragement at my efforts and went back to his drum.
Planet Bug is full of music, for sure, new words, and also other wonders. The full range of construction vehicles, pay loaders, cement mixers, excavators, bulldozers, crane trucks, and his beloved, the backhoe.
It's the source of his really truly awful favorite 2-year old joke. "Bug, do you want soup or a bagel for lunch?" You say. "Backhoe," he says with a smart-ass look. Whoever writes parenting advice books that suggest giving your toddler forced choices to give them the illusion of control has clearly not contended with the fact of who really is in charge. Backhoe.
He's also adopted a sullen teen thing. "What did you do today?" I ask, hoping for something charming or at least interesting. "Nothing," he says, with a look that would be a smirk if he had more irony in him. Today I said, "I want you to wear a hat today. It's cold out."
"Whatever," he said back, only a shade less than sarcastic.
Made me miss "Backhoe."
But mostly his landscape is still bright and funny, as even this mock-sullenness is played for laughs. It's part of becoming his own person, this defiance, as much as having his own personal favorite color (brown) and favorite number, or rather, related pair--"six upside down nine! Nine upside down six!" He doesn't tire of this marvel, even carrying around the floaty six and nine from the bathtub to demonstrate. "Six!" Flips it over. "Nine!"
He has his obsessions, which have moved on from fireworks to water fountains. Like fireworks after the Fourth of July, this is a slightly sad thing to love fiercely in New England with winter approaching. I offered to take him to his favorite park this weekend, but he answered wistfully, "No go Look Park. Little Bug sad water fountains off."
This other country he roams around in, and sometimes lets us visit, is above all is own--about the dinosaurs, the playdoh, the adventures in Mama Jennifer's stories of Bob the Backhoe, Dave the Dump Truck, and their good friend, Rocky Raccoon. Colors have alternate names--red can also be "Elmo," blue, "Cookie Monster," and yellow, you guessed it, "Big Bird." Whatever the educational television content of his imagination, he's made it his. He eats pretend cupcakes--cookie monster color.
This is the wisdom I think of stories like Alice in Wonderland and songs like Puff the Magic Dragon. We wander around in this marvelous country for quite some time, until we are lured out by the foolish ambitious to become a grown up. When we try to go back, we find ourselves without the keys any longer. But this is what they don't tell you about parenthood: if you're lucky, you'll find a guide who will let you back in.