Thanks to that ambiguity, I am free to assign the honor of that primal moment to any one of a number of different occasions: reading the final paragraph of Stuart Little and not believing at first that I had come to the end of the book and thus exultantly realizing that the writer of a story can do anything he wants; or, as my Uncle Ben read Treasure Island to me when I had the measles, finding myself indentifying with a boy much more heroic than myself; or coming to believe -- this would be much later, of course, and turn out to be unfounded – that writers were guaranteed exciting sex lives. But the first inkling I had of the potentiality of literature was not only before I could make sense of the printed symbols that I knew somehow stood for the words that people spoke, but before it even dawned on me that their intelligibility was based on any sort of order.
The revelation that it is the linear arrangement of words that refine their definitions into meaning, and that this arrangement is flexible, was the most useful lesson I learned from my father’s youngest brothers, Uncle Aaron and Uncle Norman.
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
The song, Mairzy Doats, already was caught up in my toddler synapses, thanks to its seemingly endless repetition on the seemingly ubiquitous radio, when Uncle Aaron and Uncle Norman sat me down and explained it to me. It took a while, but suddenly – of course! Mares eat oats. Does eat oats. Little lambs eat ivy. A kid will eat ivy too. These four simple sentences were shutters which my uncles flung open to reveal a new landscape – the one we, you and I, inhabit at this moment.
This was a new world – not just a daydream world in which everything one knew, up to that point, was available for arrangement in any way one wished, nor the remembered world in which, for example, my mother admonished me not to eat the clover leaves on the lawn (which I had found to have a pleasant sour taste) because dogs may have wee-weed on them, nor the anticipated world, in which my father would soon come home and divert all the attention from me to him, nor the mythological world where, for example, you knew about the witch before Hansel and Gretel did, nor those flat, colorless, strange worlds in the folio of American drawings, the only book of artworks to be found in the Spanish bungalow on Haight Avenue Extension (probably it had been a gift), of which nothing could be known but what was there before one’s eyes. My uncles’ decipherment of Mairzy Doats opened up to me the verbal universe, a universe of infinite possibilities, in which one could dictate a unique reality by the manner in which one chose to proceed through it. Of course, as my uncles patiently explained, you first had to know what a mare was and what a doe was.