Where Did I Go Wrong?

If one lives long enough (or too long), as I surely have, there comes a day when one must honestly face the question, painful though it may be: WHERE EXACTLY DID I GO WRONG? Having given this question my best shot for a week now, I find that ... in my case ... the answer lies squarely in the simple tales given us as moral guidance by our well-meaning but thoughtless parents when we were helpless, nursery tale innocents.

Take, for example, the short and sweet TORTOISE and HARE story which pretends to teach what, on its face, is a terrific lie that must confuse every child ... the lie that the slow TORTOISE always beats the speedy HARE. Even the most backward child has experienced schoolyard and playground footraces of all sorts. Does the slowest even occasionally win? No! The slowest never wins, period. Yet in this anecdote, we were taught to think SLOW PLODDING progress wins the race. But it was never clear what went wrong with the speedy HARE who took off like a shot it was said, but somehow lost. Did the HARE go in the wrong direction, did he run in circles, did he veer away at the finish line for no known reason? No clear answer. Was it PLODDING that was recommended here? It surely couldn’t be SLOWNESS, could it? So we learned to PLOD. Thanks mom and dad.

Then there was that merry rhyme HEY, DIDDLE, DIDDLE, we all learned by rote. What innocent fun: a cat and a fiddle, a moon-jumping cow, and a laughing little dog, and then ... out of the blue: THE DISH RAN AWAY WITH THE SPOON. That sudden, bizarre trope was designed to stick with us like gorilla glue until puberty where it could do its real damage. Was this act a romantic elopement or an out-and-out snatch-and-grab theft. ROMANCE or LARCENY? Concepts too convoluted for a child, but even with maturity fraught with ambiguities on a moral and sexual scale troublesome to the adolescent as well. If an elopement, was the DISH the male or the female? “Ran away with” could suggest either. If the DISH is more bowl-like in its concavity, that’s definitely a female symbol ... and the SPOON could then be phallic. But “to spoon” and “spooning” suggest a less aggressive sexuality, also female. Are these in fact TWO females, prefiguring from my childhood in 1940s an omen of the LGBTQ era to come. My parents weren’t THAT savvy, but some Hans Christian Anderson rhymester may have been, long before mum and daddy. Which, regarding Hans, brings to mind this double dactyl rhyme on HIS sexuality:



And the DISH and SPOON ambiguity was not the only childhood tale that left me brooding, confused, and afraid of life generally.

The JACK and JILL rhyme was a stunner too. Even as an innocent water-fetching adventure, it made no sense. Everyone knows water seeks its own level coursing continuously downhill. Yet JACK and JILL climbed UP the hill to fetch a pail of water. This was clearly an adolescent ruse with hanky-panky intended. The falling down and TUMBLING that followed was as explicit as you could get in nursery lore, I guess. But Jill clearly enjoyed TUMBLING and in fact, came TUMBLING AFTER Jack. My first hint of female aggressiveness ... very unnerving.

The Tom Thumb story is truly disturbing also. Coming from Medieval England, it involves a Tinker named Thumbe who longed for a son into old age until his wife relented and bore him a son no bigger than his thumb ... so Mr. Thumbe and little Mr. Thumbe ... whom he named Tom. Tom Thumb stories abound, but many involve Tom getting eaten by larger animals, digestively processed, and expelled. In one such tale, he emerges from a large fish served to King Arthur himself and becomes a young knight in King Arthur’s court, especially beloved of the ladies at court. Nuff said. I don’t know if it’s related to the Tom Thumb stories or not, but also from English lore and common law, we inherit “THE RULE OF THUMB,” which establishes the width of the stick ... no wider than your thumb ... with which English and early American husbands were permitted to beat their wives. It’s surely good the courts saw fit to regulate such a practice, which might easily have become abusive. Wifey and I have continued this progress. We have reduced it to just half-a-thumb’s width, barely more than a dowel-stick now. Wifey says it’s more the whapping sound that corrects her conduct than the tiny sting of the blows.

But, oh dear, have I lost the thread of this? We were discussing the danger of nursery messaging. Harebrained of me to be running in circles so. Plod forward, sir.

I conclude that moral instruction from the nursery may mislead us on later paths of maturity to controversy, duplicity, obscurity, and adversity. In my case, WHERE I WENT WRONG dates back there somehow.