Friday, February 10, 2012

Unintentional Portmanteau

(The following random anecdote contains a bit of rude and ribald wordplay. If your sensibilities are incredibly easily offended, feel free to skip this one. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Sometimes when I think about my recent woes with retaining information (like names and plot turns from books I’ve read, necessitating re-reads) I wonder if it’s a simple case of space limitations within my old brainpan: new data displaces old data. And certainly becoming a parent has dramatically increased the amount of vital information I need to hold onto in my day-to-day mental schema, but it has also multiplied the amount of trivia stored in the folds of gray matter. Because I enjoy taking an interest in the things that interest my children, and I’ve managed to capture the names of Cars characters from the indispensable to the insignificant, partly to satisfy myself and partly because the little guy’s default setting is to expect me to know these things as well as he does, if not better.

This reminds me of when I was a kid, older than the little guy is now, more like nine or ten years old, and the sprawling cast of fictional characters I was most conversant with was G.I.Joe. Watched the cartoon, collected (and ardently played with) the action figures and vehicles, and constantly updated my mental inventory of the toys I didn’t have but hoped to obtain. Typical American male child circa 1983, in other words.

My father remembered when G.I. Joe was the name of one guy, not an entire special missions force fantasia, but he made a game enough effort to keep track of the codenames and weapons of choice for the various little plastic men who overran his house. But sometimes, of course, game enough falls just a little short of success, and even a slight misstep can have unintended consequences.

To wit … here are a couple of classic 1980’s Joes:

You may already see where this is headed.
On the left we have Snowjob. As you can tell by his snazzy white parka and matching skis, his military specialization was arctic missions. He also (according to the bio sketched out in his personnel file on the back of his packaging) was something of a con artist, hence his codename. On the right, that’s Blowtorch, whose niche within the team also serves as his self-evident nom du toyetic guerre. All innocent enough (jingoism notwithstanding) and all in good fun. I knew these characters well – I can’t swear to owning either of these action figures, but surely some of my friends did, my Little Bro might have counted one or the other among his half of our not-exactly-shared collection, and they certainly both figured prominently in various episodes of the cartoon. And just as certainly, they managed to infiltrate my dad’s consciousness as well. Sort of.

So one night, when my dad was trying to hustle me and/or my Little Bro towards our evening bath, he exhorted us to hurry up and gather whatever toys we wanted to play with in the tub. And he started rattling off the names of specific G.I.Joes, and got the first couple of them right: “Go on, grab your Shipwreck and your Snake-Eyes and your Blowjob …” The two things I remember most clearly about the immediate aftermath of that unexpected addition to the Joe roster were understanding completely how my father got Snowjob and Blowtorch mixed up and melded while shouting out free-associative string of compound words, and simultaneously turning bright red while utterly failing to conceal any kind of outward reaction to the utterance of a dirty word. At nine or ten years old I truly had no idea what exactly a blowjob was, I just knew it had something to do with sex and wasn’t the kind of thing you talked about in front of children if you were a grown-up, or your parents if you were a kid. If one of my peers had said the exact same thing I would have screamed with laughter, again just because of the taboo violation and not because I had any concept of the reference. But given voice by my father, of all people, it left me absolutely dumbstruck.

Really it’s not so much a question of if but when I am going to fall into a similar pitfall as my father did. There are very few subject matters I naturally shy away from, and just about the only area in which I’ll willingly censor myself is in dealing with my children. So the chances of my usual mental habits overriding my self-imposed artificial restraints, especially when there’s some kind of humorous overlap or juxtaposition, ultimately trend toward absolute certainty. I’ll be sure to call myself on it and report it here when the inevitable comes to pass.

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