I’ve heard that the greatest challenge facing linguists today lies not in understanding how the brain encodes language, nor in mapping the lexicons of the world’s vanishing dialects, nor in any other such grinding academic chore.
For the No. 1 linguistic challenge is a world beyond all that. In layman’s terms, it is defined simply as . . . how to render the theme to Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” in the English alphabet.
I mean, do you write it as, “mee-mee-mee-mee-mee-mee-mee-mee?” Or as, “eedee-beebee-eedee-beebee-eedee-beebee?” Or in some other confounded way?
Word has it that a team of MIT linguists is working round-the-clock on this very problem. That even as I type, men wearing long white coats are locked in some deep basement, scratching out blackboards full of banjo-tight vowels and cracker-crisp consonants, just hoping someone hits the perfect combo.
So far, I haven’t been consulted. Not that I know anything about linguistics, but I do have an insight that most MIT eggheads don’t.
Which is: I have actually been to the Twilight Zone.
And not only me. For I will wager that all long-term foreign residents of Japan enter the Twilight Zone each and every time they return to their native lands.
The opening narration goes something like this (Picture a serious man wearing a thin, black tie. In the background you hear, “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.”): “You unlock the door to your past life with the key of cherished memory. Yet beyond lies another dimension — a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of wholesale change. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of places and people not as they used to be. You’ve just smacked into . . . The Twilight Zone.”
“I’m gonna take a walk in the park,” I tell my mother, remembering the green lawns where I played as a youth.
My mother’s eyes dart from right to left. “Park? What park?” Ten minutes later, I stand before a red-brick municipal building. There is no park.
“I need a drink,” I say next. In fact, I need a chocolate malt from the Tasty Freeze Ice Cream Parlor, just like always.
My mother tilts her head, as if hearing a distant, “noo-noo-noo-noo-noo-noo-noo-noo.”
“The Tasty Freeze?”
Moments later, I almost hyperventilate as I stride up and down the sidewalk. “But it was here! Right here!” Yet now the Tasty Freeze is a shoe store.
“Yes . . . but that was decades ago.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was just . . .” I swallow. “Yesterday.”
Later still, I relax in the living room as my sister spits up at the antics of a sitcom star.
“Don’t you just love this guy?” she asks. “And doesn’t he get funnier every year?”
I can’t say . . . because I’ve never seen the man before in my life. His face is as fresh as a just-peeled banana. His jokes, however, sound like they were ripe years ago.
To pass time, I flip through my sister’s CDs. I recognize some of the artists, but most of the familiar names are missing.
“Neil Diamond’s not doing much these days, huh?”
My sister blinks at me. From the TV comes the squeak of, “kee-kee-kee-kee-kee-kee-kee-kee.”
“Say,” she smiles — the way people smile when they talk to half-wits. “I see Todd’s outside. Wanna go say hi to Todd?” She speaks of our neighbor’s son.
Why, sure. For I can recall chasing little Todd about our yard and tickling him till his tongue dropped off.
Only now, little Todd is much larger than most linebackers. Any attempt at tickling him, I feel, would result in my sudden and brutal death.
The next morning, then, a high school buddy takes me golfing. At the clubhouse, the cashier asks that I pay 10 bucks.
“No, no,” I laugh. “I want a daily pass, not a weekly ticket!”
The man eyes me. Everyone eyes me. Meanwhile the Muzak tinkles out, “ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping.”
Yet once on the links, everything seems normal. Meaning — just like yesteryear — I drill every other shot into the bushes.
My friend tramps through the woods with me in search of one of my wayward Dunlops. “I haven’t been here in years,” he notes.
But that can’t be true, I tell him. He and I always sliced our drives into these trees! It was a time-honored tradition!
Now he is a six-handicap golfer. He bends back his visor and squints at me. “What planet have you been on?” he asks.
Me? For the past 22 years, I have been on planet Japan, and occasional trips home have not been enough to board up all the gaps in time and relationships.
But at least those gaps run both ways.
“Eat up!” says my mother. She sets down a steaming plate of corn on the cob.
Which I stare at. “Mother . . . I don’t eat corn on the cob.”
“Sure you do. You absolutely love it.”
I tell her I haven’t eaten corn on the cob since I was 25. That the kernels get stuck behind my bridge and drive me crazy.
Now she sinks into a chair, her eyes wide. “But . . . my son doesn’t have a bridge.”
I open my mouth and she gawks at the metal — a gaze that takes her far from her kitchen into a realm where memory is an illusion.
You guessed it. She’s joined her son in the Twilight Zone.
Where time and distance simply smile, and the background music goes . . . “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee.”