When I was little, my mom and dad worried about me. Not just for the usual stuff — skinned knees and failed history tests — but also because I tended to misconstrue the things people said.
One afternoon while we were waiting for my piano teacher, John Bond, to arrive I asked my mom a question.
“Mom, I don’t understand that new song on the radio by Johnny Rivers.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“How can anyone be a Secret Asian Man? And why would they punish him by giving him a number and taking away his name?”
Mom gave me the same look she had the day I told everyone that Richard Nixon was the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and we’d learned about him at school. Just for the record it was Robert Nixon — but that’s just a slight difference and hardly worth mentioning. Mom quickly corrected me, “It’s Secret Agent Man, Ray. You know like 007 James Bond?”
“My music teacher, Mr. Bond, is a secret agent?, Cool.”
“No, Ray. The song is about secret agents like James Bond. Your teacher’s name is John Bond.”
I must admit my penchant for mishearing things didn’t improve in my teens. I tended to get lyrics wrong, which proved embarrassing given my penchant for singing them as loud as possible. It must have been edifying for the neighbours to know that Paul McCartney’s hit Uncle Albert went, “Little, Liddell, be a gypsy get around. Get your feet up off the ground, Liddell, Liddell get around.” It dovetailed with the life story of runner Eric Liddell as portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. However, the actual lyrics were, “Live a little, be a gypsy, get around.” So it wasn’t about the great Olympian after all, which makes sense in retrospect given the fact that the song was released a decade before the movie.
Mind you, I’m not the only one who messes up song lyrics. A friend at church told me that some people in England thought Elton John’s smash hit Bennie and the Jets was actually called A Penny for the Gents.
I wish I could say that I’ve outgrown my proclivity for mishearing words but the truth is that it’s worse than ever. A few weeks ago, Joanne and I made a date for a beach walk. When I met her, she said, “Guess what? I brought two otters!”
“You brought two otters? That’s amazing! Where did you find them? Are you going to put them back in the ocean? Do they bite?”
She looked at me in disbelief. “I said that I brought two waters!”
“Oh,” I replied sheepishly.
“Where would I get two otters?” she asked in amazement.
Thankfully, she dropped the subject. Later, as we were walking, she said, “I took the coolest picture of a washroom close up. Want to see it?”
A washroom? Now the shoe was on the other foot! It was time for me to have a little fun in return. “You take pictures of washrooms?” I asked wittily, “Are you planning an outhouse for the back yard?”
She said nothing as she handed me her camera. It was a picture of a mushroom. It made me think of Mark Twain’s famous aphorism, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”
In case you’re wondering, yes I have had my hearing checked and it’s relatively normal. At least I think that’s what the audiologist said. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Mind you, wouldn’t it be an amazing world if your piano teacher actually was a secret agent and your girlfriend really did have two otters?
— Ray Smit is the author of The Trouble with Tapioca now available at Amazon.com. His columns appear every other Thursday. He can be contacted at Raymondsmit@shaw.ca