Tuesday, 16 October 2012


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Snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tales ....

What are little boys made of?
Snakes and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
And what are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.

Oooh, but this rhyme gets a heck of a lot of hackles up. The detractors say it implants gender essentialism in the youngest minds of our society before they have the critical function to question such assumptions.

They contend it provides children with ideals of masculinity and femininity to which they may well not conform, creating a pressure towards reconciliation with gender stereotypes which, frankly, toddling tots do not need.

It is part of a socialization process that forgives the transgressions of young males with a dismissive ‘boys will be boys’ while shaping young girls into passive nonentities, sweet and willing. But it is also a common nursery rhyme, and so deserves our attention.

The rhyme appears in countless variant forms, generally that amend the ingredients of the genders, so that ‘slugs and snails’ becomes ‘frogs and snails’, ‘snips and snails,’ ‘snakes and snails’ and myriad other combinations depending on where in the world you are.

The matriarchs in my family used to say that raising boys comes with its own set of special requirements. That is because the manly little imps are often associated with raising Cain. My mother and aunts always insisted that boys should arrive with an ‘Owner’s Manual’ hanging around their neck. They do not. But they assert it did not take them long to realize at least some of the requirements for raising us.

Requirement number one they maintained is that all parents must have eyes in the back of their heads. That is because boys, of all ages, always have some ‘project’ going on. “The sooner you are aware of just what the current ‘project’ is the sooner you can take steps to avoid disaster. For some reason boys and disaster seem to keep company frequently,” my mother said.

From the time we were infants mothers, aunts and ‘ayahs’ claim that they had to be on the lookout for us little guys in our high chairs running a test to see how many green peas would fit into our nostrils. My mother used to revel in telling the story of how my brother and I checked to see what would happen when we jumped off our first storey window with umbrellas for parachutes.

Yes I certainly remember that episode and I must admit that the landing was not as smooth as those executed by the paratroopers we attempted to imitate. The ‘brollies’ were mangled in the exercise and our bruised bottoms hurt more than our bruised egos.

Requirement number two they claimed was to always expect the unexpected and be prepared for it. The ‘eyes in the back of your head’ requirement is a snap compared to this.

Boys, they said, are full of surprises, most of them of the sort that bring on premature greying or loss of hair.

All right, I believe that the masculine maverick characteristic is an inherited family trait. We were spending a weekend at a relative’s plantation when my five-year-old grandson Kingco asked if he could have a bucket to go down to the river to catch a frog for his nature study ‘show-and-tell’ project the following week.

His grandmother agreed reluctantly on condition that the bucket with his prize captive had to be stashed under the front steps of the porch. Well we were lucky that evening. We had a great catch, some half a dozen different types of frogs, a few little colourful fish and to top it all a water snake. This one was a beautiful specimen. A non-venemous docile ‘Checkered Keelback.’ We sneaked the water snake in and placed him in a different pail along with the little fish.

The snake was not spoken about. All went well until bedtime. Kingco became concerned that the estate dogs might knock the bucket over during the night and asked if he could bring the pails in. I didn’t like the idea but he assured his grandmother that they were well covered and ventilated.

So she agreed he could keep them inside. Meanwhile he also sneaked a tiny puppy inside. At the crack of dawn Kingco comes into the room holding the empty buckets. He said, “Dada, I don’t know how to tell you this but somehow the frogs and the snake got out during the night. The puppy must have knocked the pails over.”

My wife coming out of the kitchen and overhearing the conversation expostulated: “Frogs? Frogs? I thought it was just one frog. And what’s this talk about a snake and a puppy. Now get them back into the buckets and out of this house.”

His grandmother asks him after an exhausting roundup: “Did you get them all?”

All this time Kingco has been shaking his head: “We got most of them.” There was a dangerous quaver in the wife’s voice: “Most of them?” Kingco reassuringly answers: “I cannot remember for sure how many I had but I think one is still missing.”

Together we made a thorough search and, not finding another frog, finally decided he must have all of them. The water snake was the only missing link. We lied and told the wife he had slithered out into the garden.

But the water snake had taken refuge in one of the bathrooms occupied at the time by my cousin Reggie who suddenly found something velvety tickling his upper thigh as he sat on the washroom bidet. He dashed out of the bathroom in all the natural glory the Good God had bestowed on him while bawling his head off like a barmy bull. What ensued was total pandemonium. Houseboys, the maids and the cook seeing the buck naked ‘Loku Mahaththaya’ charging through the hallway added to the ear-splitting cacophony and bolted ahead of him. They were out of the house and running like greased lightning.

Amid the confusion Kingco and I entered the bathroom and coolly retrieved our elusive prize. Later that week Kingco told us he received a standing ovation at ‘show and tell’. But I do not believe that poor, old Reggie could ever have done the same with his hilarious ‘show and bawl’ cameo!

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