Politics & Policy

The Fever Swamp

Trapped Amongst the Dadaists

WASHINGTON, DC — School is out for the day, hurricane Isabel is still a distant blip on the news radar, and we’ve come to the park.

“O-o-a-a-ooh,” Paris hoots, flinging himself about on the climbing frame like a chimpanzee. Violet and Phoebe are baking cookies with dirt; I’m seated on a bench with an unopened newspaper. Molly drifts about aimlessly, at nine a little too old to get pleasure from a kiddie slide.

“I wish we’d brought Bunny,” she says gloomily, referring to the tiny white creature with sticky-up ears that has lately come to live with us.

“Bunny would die of fright,” I remind her, “She’s only eight weeks old.”

“I suppose so.” Molly perks up, “Mummy, there’s a farmers market over there. I’ll get something healthy for the family — promise!” She plucks the money from my hand and dashes off. The youngest baker stumps up with a fistful of wood chips, drops them on my lap, and stumps off again, softly singing, “Doggies…doggies again.…”

“I’m a pet dragon,” Violet announces, dropping her cookies, flapping her wings, and making a scrawking noise like wet rubber soles on linoleum.

“Out of my way, dragon,” shouts the chimpanzee, swinging to the middle of the bars. With simian ease, he hangs from one arm to examine a rock from his pocket, tosses it away carelessly, like an ape dissatisfied with an unripe date, and loops gracefully to the other side. I’m just starting to open the paper when Molly bounds back. “I got a bunch of basil, and some really weird potatoes,” she says, holding out a little sack of gnarled fingerlings. There is a gleam in her eye.

“Why don’t you try playing with those girls over there?” I ask, nodding towards a pair of friendly looking elementary-schoolers who have just arrived. Molly looks at the girls, then back at her bag, clearly weighing the awkwardness of an approach with the pleasure of a game she already has in mind.

“Nah,” she decides, “I think I’ll play with the potatoes.” She pokes around in the bag and pulls one out: “Neat, it looks like a duck.”

“Rawwk,” cries the dragon.

Molly finds a matched pair of potatoes that look like arthritic fingers. “This is the older sister and this is her friend Bugsie and they’re going to their secret fort,” she says.

So here we are, an apparently normal family on a crisp September day in a Washington, D.C. park: A housewife, a flying reptile, a primate, a baker, Molly, and a bagful of talking tubers. Is it any wonder that my husband and I sometimes feel as though we have accidentally wandered on to the set of a Dada play and cannot find the exit? We are surrounded at home by individuals who occupy a thrilling, kaleidoscopic world that is completely invisible to us.

They shriek with amusement at wild, nonsensical exchanges — “If you’re happy and you know it eat a hairclip!” “If you’re happy and you know it sing a window!” — that leave my husband and me feeling dismayed and irritable. For through no fault of our own, and without ever intending it, my husband and I live in a granite-gray, two-dimensional, check-writing, fact-filled world. Perhaps you live here, too.

As the household straight men, our job is to:

a) Ask bourgeois questions: “How was school today?”

b) Give repetitive orders: “I said, go brush your teeth.”

c) Make boring statements: “Yes, you have to eat your broccoli.”

d) All of the above.

I’m not sure when our surroundings became so austere, for I have the fugitive sense that we, too, once thought eating a hairclip the height of wit. I remember lying with a friend in the back of my mother’s station wagon, rolling like a log as we swung around corners, and loudly drawing out the word ‘fungi’ for comic effect. “Funngggiii,” I drawled, giggling idiotically. Then it was my friend’s turn, and somehow even funnier, “Fuunnnngggiiiii….” This went on for ages.

Now I’m the one driving the station wagon, and I can see why my mother took the corners as hard as she did. The joke is always amusing when it starts, and you chuckle fondly to yourself, ‘Aw, what sweet children, heavens, don’t you just love them?’ You tip the rearview mirror down to see their adored faces as they sit strapped in, smirking at one another.

“I wish I had a tree on my head,” someone begins, and they’re off:

“I wish I had a nose on my head — ”

“I wish I had a vanilla ice cream on my head — ”

“I wish I had a slug on my head — ”

“I wish I had a POO on my head — “

At this point, everyone is screeching intolerably.

“Children, not so loud,” you wince, flipping the mirror back up again and turning on the radio. As the joke goes on and on and on —

“I wish I had the universe on my head!” — And on, your expression gets progressively more wintry, and you find yourself biting back snippy remarks about how humor derives from unexpectedness, and consequently this incredibly tedious one-upmanship of what they wish was on their heads isn’t funny, it’s not even close to a joke, it’s just plain irritating so why are they laughing their heads off?

But you don’t say anything. You drive, grimly, as the laff riot goes on, and in spite of yourself you feel the hard corners of your mouth soften, and you begin to smile, buoyed by their childish pleasure in sheer

silliness, even if you don’t get the joke. By the time you arrive home, the children are wrung out, and you’re feeling all sugary again: “Aw, what sweet children…etc.”

Unfortunately, the happy mood doesn’t last. The next morning, my husband and I are awakened by thumps from overhead and sounds of distress.

“Mummy and Daddy, there’s something wrong with bunny!”

Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit.

Meghan Cox Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal.

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