This Old Man…and what makes him sick

This old man, he played one

He played knick-knack on my thumb

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played two

He played knick-knack on my shoe

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played three

He played knick-knack on my knee

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played four

He played knick-knack on my door

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played five

He played knick-knack on my hive

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played six

He played knick-knack with some sticks

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played seven

He played knick-knack up to

Heaven Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played eight

He played knick-knack on my gate

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played nine

He played knick-knack on my spine

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played ten

He played knick-knack once again

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

What kind of sick game is this knick-knack, you may wonder, snickering immaturely to yourself.  What kind of game can you play on someone’s thumb, and shoe, and knee, and door, and hive, and spine?  There must be some kind of innuendo there!  In fact, that’s all in your dirty mind.  I did actual research, with the internet, and found out that “knick knack” was what you called it when you beat out a particular rhythm with spoons.  The old man isn’t playing a game – he’s playing music.  Poorly.  According to our narrator, his first attempt is a count of one – a steady metronome carried out on the poor witness’s thumb.  The last line asserts the old man will later “come rolling home”, implying the narrator is a member of his immediate family.  Most likely, it’s the spoon-musician’s kid referring to him as the “old man.”

The old guy’s main characteristics so far are annoyingness.  Then comes the ominous, “Knick knack paddy wack” –and you get the sense that the old man’s knick-knacking has gotten out of control.  He’s taken his act far from the home – to a paddy, which dictionary.com assures me is basically a bog where you grow rice.  The knick-knacking ends abruptly here, with a “wack” – immediately followed by his dog receiving a bone.  Wading through the high paddy waters, it’s possible he accidentally wacked some small animal to death with his out-of-control spoon-music, and then goes home.

But it happens again the next day.  He starts out, again, annoyingly, smacking out a two-beat rhythm on his kid’s shoe.  Then finds himself again in the paddy, and again – wack!  And his dog gets a bone.  It’s not that easy to accidentally hit small animals with spoons.  Maybe he’s doing it on purpose.  Or – maybe we should be using the other definition of “wack”…the one that refers to the kills of crime rings.  The old man seems to have stumbled into the boggy dumping ground of some criminal element.  Rather than being disturbed or concerned, however, the gross old spoon-musician starts wrenching up decaying limbs to feed his dog.

Then he starts knick-knacking again the next day, to a count of three, continuing an increasingly ritualistic-looking pattern, where he spoon-bangs weird parts of his kid’s body, varying architectural crevices of symbolic importance and elements of the natural world then scurrying off to the paddy to gorge his hound on dead people.  Then he rolls around through the paddy until he finds his way home.  Apparently, he lives very near the paddy.  The paddy may even be his own land, and the rice growing there his own produce.  The young narrator does not venture a guess as to how the bodies came to be in his rice paddy; in his innocence, in fact, the horrifying tenor of what he’s describing seems to be taken light-heartedly as some funny, playful quirks of his father.  Perhaps the stringing-together in song of all the oddities he’s observed indicate a child at the very brink of discovering the grotesque darkness underlying every element of his little world.

A Tisket, A Tasket – a Basketful of Pain

A-tisket, a-tasket

A green and yellow basket

I wrote a letter to my love

And on the way I dropped it

I dropped it

I dropped it

Yes, on the way I dropped it

A little boy he picked it up and put it in his pocket.

 

Most of us having heard these lyrics have reasonably assumed that the author here is no Casanova. He – most of us probably figured this was a dude – repeats himself four times in nine lines, opens with nonsense words and random basket imagery and goes on to stutteringly convey the bumbling sequence of events in which his letter was lost.

In a recent re-examination of this classic, however, some bits of this poem appear strikingly out of place. Even taking into account the author’s apparent flakiness, some things in his tale just don’t add up.

How, for example, does our narrator know that a little boy picked the letter up and put it in his pocket?

It’s conceivable that the writer doubled back on his trail once he realized he’d dropped his letter, arriving at the exact place where he happened to have let it go just as a little boy was picking it up. But then, why wouldn’t he have just notified the lad that the letter belonged to him and simply corrected the situation?   What the author describes is a rather more enigmatic scene – he drops a letter and watches in silence until a random boy finds it and puts it in his pocket.

It cannot be said that the letter’s author intended this course of events at the outset – he clearly states that it was on his way to delivering the letter when things began to fall apart. He did not intend to drop his letter. He did not intend for the little boy to pick it up. But something happened on the way to his destination – something that caused him to drop his dispatch and watch in apparent stupefaction, as a stranger picked it up and walked away.

Having been left no other clue, we must finally call into question the significance of that opening, nonsense image of a brightly-colored basket.

If at first we imagined the basket tucked under the arm of the poem’s narrator, we must now reconsider; if that had been the case, the devoted lover surely would have tucked the letter safely inside, where it would not have been dropped in the first place.

No – this basket belonged to someone else. Someone blocking our narrator’s way – someone our narrator was never able to pass. The tenor of the rhyme – stuttering, fraught with repetition and a fixation on the key sensory images including the colors of the stranger’s basket, and the whereabouts of his dropped letter – are most appropriately taken not as the chronic indicators of a foolish personality, but the situational response of a person under trauma.

What could have caused such intense duress in a writer delivering a love-letter? What could have caused him to drop that letter in the first place? What could have left him stunned and helpless to observe as a child came along and later pocketed his precious correspondence?

What was in that stranger’s basket?

The only thing a vibrantly colored basket can contain and still be seen as horrifying. The same thing kept today in brightly-colored coolers and thermal bags in medical units the world over.

Human.  Innards.

Tragically, it seems this dear ditty’s narrator stumbled into the hands of a black-market organ trafficker, who promptly attacked, ripped out his most marketable bits, and slung him into whatever shallow ditch or dale afforded him a view of his letter laying in the road. It is with helpless horror that he later observes the young child pick up the letter and carry it obliviously off, presumably into the same hands that finished off our narrator.

These lyrics can only be seen as the gasping last words of a lover struggling without being able to make sense of what has happened, to warn whoever it is that finally finds him – go back the way you came. There are merchants of death ahead.

Case regretfully closed.

Mama’s Little Monkeys

Four little monkeys jumping on the bed
One fell off and bumped his head
Mama called the doctor and the doctor said:
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

This rhyme refrains with one less monkey jumpin’ on the bed each round, until there are no more monkeys to sing about.

You may be thinking this is a story about a mama monkey and her four monkey babies in a fantasy world where monkey people talk and live in houses with beds like human folk.

But is that really what’s going on?

Mama is never referred to as a monkey. Nor is the doctor.

Mama and the doctor are able to speak and use telephones – their behavior is very human. But the little monkeys? They jump up and down with no apparent signs of intelligence, or even enjoyment, as one after another falls off of the bed and becomes incapacitated. Though mama is evidently concerned enough for each little monkey’s head injury to seek medical consultation, the simians exhibit neither empathy nor concern for their fallen siblings. They are as insensible to the pain of others as they are to the personal risks they take – they seem unable to stop or even to consider stopping. What we have here is no childlike pleasure at the prospect of a moment’s disobedience – this is a thrashing, violent hopping frenzy of such intensity that, by song’s end, every little monkey is put out of commission. The human woman we sing of is inexplicably in possession of a brood of creatures who have, to judge by their behavior, too little intelligence and too much raw energy to be fully human or monkey.

And yet, she is called Mama.

This brings us to the Doctor. Mama seems to have access to a private line – she calls the doc, not the hospital or the doctor’s office, and he or she answers directly. She speaks to the same person each time she calls – The Doctor, not A Doctor. So, it seems Mama has quite a close connection with this physician. All the more astounding, then, is the doctor’s relentless reply – “No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed.”

It may not be fair to surmise from the missing ‘g’ on the end of the word ‘jumping’ that the Doctor acquired his or her credentials at an academic institution of lax standards. We can certainly argue, however, that the Doctor’s advice lacks all the hallmarks of a traditional medical exam – there is no talk of size, color, or shape of any bumps or lacerations sustained. There is no question of breathing or heart-rate, no concern that the monkeys are able to answer simple questions or are even conscious. There is no attempt to schedule a follow-up examination. The Doctor, in short, seems not at all intent on helping these little monkeys.

This, despite the over-involvement indicated by Mama’s having a private line and her compulsive tendency to call after each little monkey’s fall, regardless of the helpfulness of her doc’s advice. We can only logically conclude that this unorthodox, overly-involved medical expert made use of Mama’s generous womb to incubate his mad human-monkey hybrid until such a time as they might be medically able to meet the world.

But they were not ready.

Mama’s grotesque gestation might, indeed, have won the Doc a place in the halls of history – had her spawn, as intended, developed with the minds of men and the athletic prowess of apes, and the next stage of human evolution been bolstered by its last. As we have seen, however – this is not what happened. The little monkeys burst from the uterus in a bestial hopping rage beyond anyone’s control. As is often the case with genetic mutations, their skulls likely were too thin to sustain the impact of a fall from their maternal bed – they succumbed, one after the next, to certain doom, until the insistent mantra of their shamed creator came, at last, to chilling fruition – “No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed.”