I have a very good friend named Travis who is 2 years old and who is going through a negative stage. I do not understand many of the stages of growing up and growing old. Mid-life, for instances, escapes me completely, and I don't ever remember being a teen-ager.
I do, however, understand the negative stage since it is one, for God's own whimsical reasons, I have never grown out of. I therefore relate to Travis, and sometimes we wander up a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains together and shake our heads and say no and uh-uh and to hell with it.
Most people I know feel that I probably ought to encourage Travis to be more positive because he might not grow up to be a newspaper columnist and there are very few other occupations that require or will even tolerate a nature such as mine.
But these people do not understand the essential elements of the kind of negativity Travis and I embody. It is offered by my small friend, for example, with a shrug and a smile and sometimes with a sound of laughter so sweet it is almost like music.
He says no with a twinkle, and while I would rather cut out my tongue than twinkle, I realize that the nature of a no is often shaped by, if not a twinkle, a wry grin.
Travis and I discussed this the other day as we meandered along a trail that begins near my house in the Santa Monicas.
A light rain was falling and occasionally Travis would throw back his head and open his mouth to catch the moisture. I took his hand to guide him while he was thus involved and not watching the ground. It is a small hand, warm and trusting.
"The thing is," I said to him, "those of us who are negative are not easily understood by those who are positive, namely people with 'I Love God' bumper stickers on their modest Honda Civics."
"Nope," Travis replied.
"Being negative involves the ability to say the truth when the truth is not popular," I observed.
He said, "Uh-uh."
"Do you mean," I continued, as he turned around once to see if the rain would turn with him, "that you agree or disagree with me?"
"Hellit," Travis replied.
"We're going to have to work on that one," I said.
Travis is learning to talk quite well, but he seems to be having trouble saying to hell with it. We practice the phrase once in awhile because I feel it is important for a negative person to be able to dismiss criticism with a cluster of words that are simultaneously negative, noncommitive and all-inclusive.
To hell with it does not single out any one group or even any one event, but summarizes a good-natured feeling of frustration and impatience with, well, everything.
"Are you really teaching him to say to hell with it?" Travis' mother asked one day, not quite believing that even I could stoop so low. Her name is Linda.
"Someone has to teach him," I said, "and it might as well be me. I am quite good at it actually."
Linda has known me for a very long time, so she just shook her head and smiled.
"Boy," I heard her say to her mother, "you really married a nut."
Meanwhile, back on the trail:
"In terms of negative," I said to Travis, "you must. . . . "
"Nope," he interrupted.
"You have to wait until I'm finished," I said.
He said nope again and no and hellit and shook his head and added "Mine!" which is his entire repertoire.
Then he laughed, because he understood, that bright little boy, what a good joke he was playing on his old pal.
"Well," I said, "maybe you're right, Trav. Because, I guess, if you're conscious of your own negativism then you aren't really negative, are you?"
He threw his head back again to catch the rain in his mouth, tasting the place where storms are born. He closed his eyes and spread his arms at the same time. He was pretending he was flying, which shows a depth of wisdom difficult to find in one so young. He understood that the spirit soars when rain falls.
I mention this today only because while searching about for a holiday column, I began to realize that I was awfully grateful to have Travis around. He has defined for me the nature of no in a manner that explains my own sour approach to life.
Travis catches rain in his mouth because rain is real, and he takes my hand because his trust is real. Words are bubbles that pop and disappear. No is a game people play.
"You're a very nice boy, Travis," I said, "and I'm terribly glad to have you around this holiday season. I only wish everyone had someone as perceptive as you."
He laughed a laugh that enribboned the dark day with a light of its own. Then he shook his head no very, very hard, as hard as a boy of two can shake it, and he said, "Yes!"
I picked him up and hugged him and walked along the trail with Travis in my arms. His head was thrown back, his eyes were closed and his arms were outspread. We were flying.