Wednesday, February 4

I Like You

by Sandol Stoddard Warbug
illustrated by Jacqueline Chwast
Houghton Mifflin 1965

My wife likes to say I have a sticky brain. This is a fairly accurate description of my proclivity to spout lots of useless bits of cultural flotsam that I can recall at a moment's notice. I can, for example, sing jingles from television commercials that haven't aired in over 35 years without the crutch of revisiting them on YouTube. I can, with the briefest of information, recall the actors or titles of movies as people try to describe them. I am horrible at the stuff I was supposed to learn in school, but I often get the obscure questions correct in Trivial Pursuit.

Years ago I came across a single panel cartoon -- reprinted in an issue of Utne magazine, if I'm not mistaken -- that made me laugh with a sort of recognition that could have sunk my spirits if it caught me on the wrong day. In it, a portly gentleman is among a handful of people in a movie theatre, staring at the screen in horror. The caption (approximately): "Roger suddenly realizes that one of his treasured childhood memories is actually a scene from a movie." I took this to be Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize winning movie critic, and I knew all too well how that felt. So many times as an adult, revisiting old movies I might only have caught a glimpse of on television growing up, I have scenes come rushing back like a sudden gale force wind. It is, indeed, an odd thing when a memory from childhood presents itself and demands recognition.

So for years I have been using the phrase "goofus on the roofus" as a term of endearment for those who have behaved silly. Certainly with my girls, though I have done it to friends as well. In my mind the full phrase was always "goofus on the roofus, hollering your head off" and, when the situation called for it, I would use the whole line. I cannot recall specifics, but I have no doubt I have referred to at least one individual in Berkeley (known by many as The Hate Man) precisely this way. Something to do with his daily ritual of standing on the roof of his apartment building, in full view of my dorm room, naked, shouting at the sun in some ritualistic fashion.

Recently, I dropped by my local children's book store and saw I Like You sitting on the counter. I'm not generally convinced that impulse items placed by the check-out counter are really deserving of the space, but there was something about this book that caused me to pick it up. It had that look about it that said "Remember me?" and so I had to find out whether it was, indeed, another treasured childhood memory coming back to claim it's rightful place. I used the time-honored tradition of the Random Page Test, and this is what I landed on:

"I am a goofus on the roofus
Hollering my head off
You are one too"
(sorry for the bad scan)

Another gap in my past bridged.

The 1960s seemed like a time when children's books were not only finding their legs, but really testing the boundaries of their freedom. Nonsense and imagination took the place of linear narrative in a way that seemed to reflect the restless nature of a post-war, baby boomer childhood. There are glimmers of this in Ruth Krauss's Open House for Butterflies and Remy Charlip's Arm in Arm, collections of prose-poems and story-etts and snippets of the kind of nonsense that resonates with a playground sensibility.

Warburg opens with the declarative "I like you / And I know why" and proceeds to explain all the reasons why. Many of the reasons are as intimate as being able to share secrets, or share feelings, and they aren't always positive. "I like you because if I am mad at you / Then you are mad at me too // It's awful when the other person isn't // Phooey." And the book continues with this examination of friendship until finally concluding, with the only true response to such a query, "I guess I just like you // Because I like you."

Chwast's illustrations have that loose, spontaneous quality of having quickly captured a moment, almost as if they were taken from a sketchbook. With each page the subjects change so that there is no particular individual serving as the "I" throughout; boys and girls, men and women, young and old, and all the various combinations, each used to help illustrate the quasi universal elements that build a friendship. I say quasi because, unfortunately, the book suffers that lack of diversity that would come a few years down the line in children's books. Everyone depicted is clearly of European descent (or an animal). I wish Chwast had been more forward thinking and given us just a bit of the old UN casting here. It would have gone a long way toward promoting not just the ideas of friendship, but that these things are universal across the spectrum and the sort of things that bring us together.

Still, it fills in yet another gap in my endless quest to rebuild the library of my youth and explain one of my more curious expression. I'll continue to call people goofuses on the roofuses when warranted, only now I'll know where it came from.

(For those reading comments, I don't normally go back and revise posts once "published" - I prefer to stand here warts and all - but this time the gaff Mr. Florian pointed out didn't sit well with me. I only mention it so the comment makes sense.)


Douglas Florian said...

That's European descent.
"European dissent" is the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Where's your copy editor, David?

david elzey said...

man, that does it. i'm putting down the darwin and crawling back into the sea.

copy editor? we don't need no stinkin' copy editor!

i sit corrected.

Beth Kephart said...

I'd give anything to have a sticky brain. Even for an hour.