Word Crashers (#34)
We went down to “beach house ocean” today. Like the beach boy he is, Charlie carried his board down to the surf and proceeded straight in over his head. He backfloated; he turned to meet the waves, which curled him up in salty foam. As Mom-NOS posted recently in Water-based boy, swimming in the ocean is “like coming home” for her son, Bud, and Charlie is never more himself than when in the crash and flow of the waves.
To Charlie, “beach house” does not refer to one specific beach house–we have rented different ones over the years–but the whole beach experience. It is his word for the whole beach-swimming in the ocean-boogie board-Jersey shore-rides-fried food and seafood thing that spells “summer.” Charlie’s receptive language–what he himself understands–is vastly greater than his expressive, what he himself can say. Many meanings, literal and associative, crash together in one word for him. They sometimes make for strange bedfellows or at least awkward exchanges such as you can find yourself in at a friend’s wedding, when someone switches your place card and you’re seated (stuck) with her junior cousins, their significant others, and some random single guys who work in computers.
The word “hi” would seem to have one perfectly basic and unitary meaning, of greeting another party. Charlie was taught this at the beginning of his home ABA program: “Hi Kristy! Hi Stella. Hi Tara, hi Beth.” About two years ago, the meaning of Charlie’s “hi” became a most mixed bag. If Jim whistled, Charlie said “hi” = “stop.” If I proposed we go for a walk, Charlie said “hi” = “I don’t want to.” If Charlie was doing a jigsaw and having trouble with one piece, he said “hi” = “I’m getting frustrated.” He also still used the word as a greeting (“hi Sara” to a therapist).
Then there was “burger fries” or the expanded version, “burger fries fries burger.” At first this meant what it looks like, a request for a hamburger and French fries. Last year we noted that Charlie would say this combination of words as he was getting increasingly aggravated; sometimes he would say it over and over and over and hit his head. It was as if Charlie were trying to comfort himself by talking about something he liked, so that what looked like a statement of hunger was all mixed up with a desperate attempt to cope with his anxiety and even stave it off. At first Charlie’s strategy worked and saying “burger fries fries burger” a few nonnillion times was all that happened; then, after some weeks, the words themselves became associated with the anxiety, too many feelings came crashing in together on him, and just saying “fries ann burgers” meant Bad Spell Ahead.
We do teach Charlie more “appropriate” words to say: “Stoppit.” “No walk.” “I want break.” I am ever bemused at the clues into Charlie’s thinking from his word-crashings, these unlikely couplings of elements with not much in common. (When Charlie’s anxiety thermometer was really rising, he used to sing “fries anna burgers, burgerz ann fries” to the tune of “Brother John.”)
After an early “fries, shrimp” dinner today, Charlie proclaimed the next activity in his Charlie-ordained scheme of things: “ferris wheel.” The sun was still hot and bright and–Jim and I deciding to shake things up–we drove up to the lighthouse at the end of the island and headed for a concrete walkway which ended at a jetty of massive boulders. Charlie slipped under the rail to the sand, said “ocean,” and led us down the beach, the rock jetty at our left.
“He must remember this,” said Jim as Charlie prodded the seaweed piles. It had been three years since we had taken a walk on this particular strip of sand. Then, we had gone all the way to the beach at the end and swam; today, we decided we’d better turn Charlie around before we got there, as it was after 5pm and the lifeguards were gone. “Hey pal, how about trying out these rocks?” Jim proposed and, after a few waist-deep splashes in a pool of ocean water that had formed on the sand, Charlie climbed up onto the rock jetty.
“We’ll take it one rock at a time,” Jim said behind me.
Afterwards, we did the ferris wheel and the “Frog Hopper,” which is Charlie’s word for the DropZone. Both the Frog Hopper and the Drop Zone operate according to the same principle: A platform with seats and giggly/terrifed kids (and random adults, like the tattooed guy who Charlie patted on the leg–just being friendly, in his way! I didn’t try to explain) goes up and down and up, up, up and doooowwwn on a post, several times. The platform is like the weight on one of those “show your strong man strength” carnival games, in which you use a hammer to propel a weight upwards. The “Frog Hopper” is a beginners’ version; the Drop Zone has a far higher post and a double row of seats, and offers a bigger thrill. But “Frog Hopper” was Charlie’s word for his first experience of stomach-dropping delight and the “Drop Zone” experience is combined into the word “Frog Hopper.”
Of course, Jim and I both have a bit of the word crasher in us–back on the jetty, Jim had said “Careful, Cholly, it’s rocky.”
“Hey, remember Rocky and Bullwinkle?” I had said, jumping over a crack. “And Boris and Natasha. All the time I watched it, I never knew it was a Cold War allegory.”
“I loved that show,” Jim was reminiscing, Charlie in one hand and his shoes in the other. “I watched it in its original showing.”
“Lemmonn-ade,” Charlie offered.
“You’re doing good and we’ll get the lemonade,” I had responded, then, “I always identified with Rocky.” Before I could contemplate which character Jim most resembled and whether I had also acquired a twist of Natasha, Charlie was piping up: “We’ll be back to beach house!”
“Yes,” I said, with Jim seconding. “We’ll be back.”