Last night Valarie returned from a ten-day trip to her familial home in Pennsylvania. While there are more reasons I’m happy to have her back than I can detail here, I was reminded this afternoon that one of my favorites is the chance to renew the conversational shorthand we share.
Pardon the crassness of this example, but after going out for breakfast and browsing for books at Powell’s today, I found myself desperately having to go to the bathroom. On the drive home I found myself humming a few bars of some old John Philip Sousa march. Valarie instantly knew the reference: There is a scene in The Right Stuff in which John Glenn’s re-entry into to Earth's atmosphere is dangerously jeopardized by a lost heat shield on his Gemini space capsule. As the capsule shakes violently and the heat rises almost unbearably, Glenn begins obsessively humming a Sousa march. As I piloted our sedan through the Hawthorne district, contorting myself behind the wheel to withstand the frantic call of nature, I began humming Sousa in just the same way, and Valarie instantly giggled. Granted she has a very low giggling threshold, but the point is that a few bars of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" better expressed the need to run for the bathroom than words ever could.
There are all kinds of other shorthand references Valarie and I share, and countless ones I enjoy with other friends too. My old friend Reese and I still quote lines from National Lampoon’s Vacation nearly twenty years after the days we’d watch the movie over and over again as eighth graders. (“Don’t know why they call this stuff hamburger helper; does just fine by itself!”) My friend Paul and I still enjoy imitating our high school home-economics teacher, Mrs. Simonsen, who slurred and finished every sentence by saying, “Kay?”
With my sister there is a limitless array of Simpsons lines and imitations of our mom. For example, years ago we passed mom on the way to the store, and she waved for us to pull over so she could ask us to pick up vacuum cleaner bags. There was something about the rigorousness with which she enunciated the bag size, U-3 (“Yyyouuuuu threeee!!!”), that has made us cackle ever since. We also like to mock our dad saying, "That's the best steak I've ever eaten!" when he gets his hands on any cut of red meat this side of Black Angus.
Regardless of its origin, there’s something pleasingly familiar about exchanging an oft-repeated line with someone you’re close to. I hesitate to get too philosophical about a topic I began with an anecdote about dashing for the toilet, but I think the repeating of one phrase over and over again is at least indirectly a kind of affirmation, a ritual. It’s just for laughs, but it reinforces a bond you share. It's the verbal equivalent of some secret handshake, not because it's at the exclusion of others but nonetheless fun to be of exclusive party to.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, I was able to make it home to the bathroom before combusting.