No longer is "Sesame Street" simply a television show. It has become a Rosetta stone, a frame of reference, education (and possibly life) itself.
You doubt it? You must not know anyone between the ages of zero and 10.
Ask a kid in that bracket to define "monster," and he'll growl, "Co-o-o-o-o-kie!" Ask him what death means, and he'll reply, "It means David runs Mr. Hooper's store." Give your kid some grumpy lip, and he'll call you Oscar the Grouch, not Daddy the Creep.
At age 18 months, Alexander Levey is already a "Sesame Street" veteran. But he became a broken record somewhere along the way.
Our son has decided that every character on "Sesame Street" is Ernie. No amount of coaxing will convince him otherwise.
Grover lumbers onto the screen, and Allie says, "Eye-knee!"
Polly Darton starts crooning a country ballad, and Allie says, "Eye-knee!"
Not even Bert, Ernie's nemesis, his foil, his punching bag, his polar opposite, is safe from our little Allie One Note. Bert's bullet head will flip into view, and the entire Levey clan will start shouting, "Bert! That's Bert, Allie!"
Allie will say, with certainty and finality:
The error is galling enough. The accent doubles the trouble. Where did our kid learn to talk like a Hackensackian? His father hasn't lived in that part of the world for more than a quarter of a century. And his mother gets a nosebleed every time she goes north of Bladensburg.
I do have to concede one point to my son. At least he has chosen a promising "Sesame Street" character on whom to obsess.
I wouldn't want a boy who was gooey like Guy Smiley. Nor would I want my son taking after Kermit the Nerd, or Big Bird the Wimp. Ernie is clever, lively and "all boy." And the way he bugs Bert is delightful.
But in precious few years, Alexander Levey will be sitting in an English exam, eyeballing a question that asks him to "compare and contrast 'Macbeth' and 'Hamlet.' " It will not do to reply: "Both are 'Macbeth.' "
If the three other Leveys haven't yet eradicated Eye-kneeism, we at least thought we had it surrounded. For the longest time, Allie leveled his Eye-knees only at the "Sesame Street" TV show, or at "Sesame Street" books.
Then he started calling real people Eye-knee. That was all right at National Airport, because the US Air ticket agent did look like a little like the real thing. But the mailman doesn't. Neither does the butcher. Or the guy at the gas station.
Desperate, we tried to wean Allie from the thinness of his vision. We bought him an Ernie doll, but also a Bert doll.
"Here, Allie," Jane said, with more patience than I could ever summon. "This doll is Ernie. And this doll is Bert, Allie. Bert! Bert!"
Allie hugged the Ernie doll in his right arm and glowingly said, "Eye-knee!"
Then he hugged the Bert doll in his left arm and just as glowingly said, "Eye-knee!"
Jane was last seen crumpling to the carpet with a bad case of the giggles.
However, Dad is the kind of parent who wants to correct flaws in his kids before they have a chance to become permanent. Confronted with Eye-kneeism, Dad's instinct was to take his son off to the corner (or was it the woodshed?) for a tutorial.
"Son," said Dad, too seriously as usual, "I need to have a talk with you."
"Eye-knee!" said Allie.
"Allie," said Dad, "where's Ernie?"
Allie proudly held Ernie toward me.
"Good! And where's Bert?"
Confusion in that sweet little face.
"There's Bert, Allie! Right there!" And Dad pointed right at him.
The light of recognition went on in Alexander F. Levey's head. "Eye-knee!" he shouted.
Perhaps this really is a phase. Perhaps next week, both dolls will be Bert. Perhaps next week, Allie won't care who is who or which is which. Perhaps next week, Allie will ask me about the infield fly rule, or Soviet-American relations, or (yes, I'm ready) my first girlfriend.
And perhaps Eye-kneeism is positive. Perhaps Allie is learning to tackle a subject and stay with it, long after other kids have moved on. Perhaps Allie is the kind of kid who will find comfort in similarities. Perhaps his English papers will analyze the ways in which "Macbeth" is more like "Hamlet" than Hamlet himself.
There's just one thing that bothers me.
Allie has been calling me "Daddy" ever since he was a year old.
The other night, he pointed at me and said, "Car."
Please return again to the thrilling days of yesteryear, Allie. Call me Eye-knee instead. All you like. Whenever you like. In the raunchiest Hackensackian you can summon. I'd rather be a boy than a Pontiac any time.